Friday, February 21, 2020

West Side Story

While it seems that a good half the theater-going public in and around New York City hotly disagrees with me, I'm squarely in the camp that believes Ivo Van Hove's maximal minimalism fails West Side Story in a whole host of ways. This is a real shame: musicals, especially canonical ones, aren't terribly concerned with exploring the nuances of class dynamics, especially as they relate to immigration, race, and place. Had West Side Story been updated with more in the way of cultural insight--as, for example, Daniel Fish's Oklahoma! so brilliantly was--it could easily have served as a springboard for myriad meaningful reflections about the current cultural moment. But Van Hove, never an especially politically savvy director, here doesn't offer any truly compelling justification for what he's done to the musical.

Exceedingly spare in dialogue or much in the way of backstory, West Side Story practically demands a triple-threat cast that can convincingly play teen gangsters who sing exceedingly complicated melodies and nail intensely physical dance sequences between rumbles. Done well, the show is devastating--and not just because of the doomed romance at its core. I've always thought that the cruelest joke of the musical is that the Jets and Sharks are so willing to destroy one another over control of the slum they're forced to share--the dilapidated "turf" the Jets have been stuck in for longer but that the Sharks are guaranteed to have more difficulty getting out of. I suppose Van Hove is trying to drive that notion home via casting that is more honestly reflective of disenfranchised urban teens. But that's about as deep as the show ever gets.

Don't get me wrong: it's nice that the Jets are no longer all white, that the Sharks no longer wear brownface, and that the gang members' "girls" are no longer gum-cracking twits in poodle skirts. There are even some non-binary gang members--can you imagine?! Woah--poor folk sure are diverse! Culture is so very messy, though: is the casting meant to compensate for the presence of Amar Ramasar in the role of Bernardo, or for the production's insistent de-emphasis of the musical's already thinly developed female characters?

The show does have some pluses: a lot of Anne Terese de Keersmaeker's choreography is beautiful. The tableau she has created at the end of the balcony--er, fire escape--scene, during which Tony (Isaac Cole Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) lean toward each other as their peers pull them apart, is gorgeously lit, and moving in a way that too much of the rest of the production is not. The rumble, which takes place on a bare stage under Van Hove's signature Misty Rain©, is gorgeously lit and staged. And I feel compelled to give a special shout-out to Andrew Sotomayor for the brilliant makeup design: I've seen far too many smeary, fake stage tattoos in my years as a theatergoer; his scars, tats, and piercings are impressively applied. Also, thanks to him, we now get to know what Maria would look like had Chino actually shot her--in the head--at the end of the musical! In slow motion! In hi-res detail!

Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
Given that there's such incredible attention to some details--perfectly sculpted tableaux, realistic battle scars, Maria with a totally gratuitous gaping head-wound--why would the performers' microphones snake so obviously from their hairlines whenever a huge, real-time image of a sneering gang member is projected onto the back wall of the stage? This might seem like a silly thing for me to be hung up on, but then, it is perfectly indicative of the many ways this production, for all its stunningly perfect trees, so regularly misses the forest.

For example: the cast dances together beautifully, but they act and sing far less cohesively. The two leads are lovely--I'm sure they'll both become huge stars--but they're not ideally matched. Powell has terrific stage presence, but his gruffly contemporary Tony doesn't jibe with Pimentel's classic Maria, especially when they sing together and her gorgeous, soaring soprano overpowers his reasonably strong tenor. Other performers' voices are similarly inconsistent, and a number of soloists tend toward riffed embellishments they aren't always vocally strong enough to land. The music director seems to have encouraged the conductor to build countless safeties into the score instead of just insisting that the singers all dial the fuck back on the melisma. As a result, the sonic aspects of the production lack even a hint of the urgent, explosive build Van Hove seems to have been so insistent on newly emphasizing in the first place.

But all the inconsistencies don't hold a candle to the production's biggest misstep, which is in its use of near-constant high-res projections in lieu of a traditional backdrop. Most of the projections reflect the performers' actions in real time, while others have been prerecorded. The tactic is interesting for a few minutes, but the projections too often dwarf or distract from the actors: why is that street scene moving while Tony and Maria are pledging their love to each other? Are they supposed to be walking sideways down the middle of the street as they sing? Are those dancers in the distance also somewhere on the stage, or were they prerecorded? Which actor corresponds to that projection of a gigantic torso? What were those little ants--sorry, I mean actual human non-projected cast members--doing on that cavernous empty stage while I was being mesmerized by that gargantuan mic peeking out from that absolutely epic wig?

I suppose all the tiny, secret compartments Van Hove has devised on, in, and several floors above the stage--Doc's, the dress (here sweat)shop, Maria's bedroom--are meant to reflect overcrowded, constricting urban spaces and the stresses caused by forced togetherness, but they only distract further: why are the actors all crammed into spaces the audience cannot see except via huge, curtailed projections? Are those snacks in the sweatshop? If so, what kind of snacks are they? Are the decorations in Maria's bedroom supposed to be symbolic? What did I miss while I was contemplating the snacks?

Done well, there's a heartbreaking immediacy to West Side Story; after all, it's ultimately about desperate, forgotten teenagers who fight and fuck each other, dream and die together. Van Hove may have been trying to prove various points in relying as heavily as he does on his projections, but because the overuse of them saps the musical's intimacy, all this production of West Side Story has to offer is Misty Rain© falling on some monosyllabic meatheads as they kill time and one another. Those really are some super-convincing face tats, though. Seriously.

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