Review: West Side Story, starring Isaac Cole Powell and Shereen Pimentel
Something's coming. Something good. Or is it? The new revival of West Side Story, stripped down to a bare stage with a movie screen in the background, has been turned on its head from the classic version of the musical.
With no classic balcony, a few missing moments, and condensed down to one, intermission free act, this West Side Story feels more like a radical re-imagining of the original source material, rather than a revival. While this approach has worked recently, take the Tony winning revival of Oklahoma! as a positive example, though it falls short of reaching its goals here. Director Ivo van Hove has employed video technology, also used in his play Network from last season. However all it accomplishes is making the audience feel as if they are watching both a theatre performance and a movie simultaneously as much of the actions occurs in areas that are either partially or completely hidden from the audience.
The cast, as seen on screen and on stage, are good as a group. Isaac Cole Powell and Shereen Pimentel are lovely as Tony and Maria, while Yesenia Ayala does well as Anita. However, for a story that is so centered around racial tensions in the 1960s, it's hard at times to tell the Sharks and the Jets apart, and once the rain starts pouring from the ceiling, the confusion only intensifies. The cast as whole have created some good moments for the production however. The typical ballet during "Somewhere" has been replaced with the entire group sitting on the floor, peacefully. It's a strikingly beautiful moment, barely choreographed, and allows for reflection. And while the usual Jerome Robbins choreography that is so synonymous with West Side Story is not there for the first time in the show's history, the classic numbers still work for the most part.
While this production has aspects of it that work, there are some glaring parts to the production that cannot go undiscussed. The most notable is the casting of Amar Ramasar, a dancer that was involved in the sexual misconduct incident at New York City Ballet, in the role of Bernardo. Especially in this production, where it is made strikingly clear that Anita is raped, eyebrows are being raised and for good reason. The show has also been plagued with injuries among the cast that led to a delayed opening by two weeks.
This West Side Story is an imperfect one. It is only during "Somewhere," where the show's minimalistic approach is fully realized and makes the greatest impact. The focus should be on the actors, rather than the screen behind them. They can perform beautifully without it.