Broadway’s West Side Story is the same but different than the original


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Based on William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, the original 1957 West Side Story production made a splash in the musical community, as it told the story of two rival New York City gangs. Throughout the musical and the Academy Award-winning movie that followed it, viewers got to see how the established Jets clashed with the Sharks, who recently arrived from Puerto Rico. The musical explores race relations, the lives of working-class kids on the streets, gender roles and how love can conquer all, as Jet boy Tony falls in love with Shark girl Maria, against both of their gangs’ wishes.

The 2020 Broadway revival kept true to the plot and characters of the original production, with some noticeable differences. Directed by Belgian director Ivo van Hove and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, the cast is more diverse and reflects New York City’s real West Side during the 1950s more accurately.

The production team decided to rely heavily on technology rather than staging, as numerous scenes in the musical and even dance numbers were viewed on a large, movie-like screen behind the stage, instead of on the stage itself. 

Certain dance numbers were longer and showed off every member of each gang, but this came at the expense of taking out the song “I Feel Pretty” from the production, which is considered one of the more famous West Side Story songs. 

Finally, the normally two-act musical did not feature an intermission, and the entire two-day storyline was fit into an hour and 45 minutes of showtime.

All of these production choices highlighted the talent of every actor, but made it hard for the audience to believe in the love between Tony, played by Isaac Powell, and Maria, played by Shereen Pimentel. The dance numbers and confusing use of the big screen actually distracted from the chemistry between Powell and Pimentel, and didn’t make their short-lived relationship something to root for.

Another distraction surprisingly ended up being Bernardo, one of the main characters in West Side Story. Amar Ramasar, who plays the feisty leader of the Sharks, was under investigation for sharing explicit photos of female dancers without their consent during his time with the New York City Ballet. 

Ramasar was briefly let go from NYCB, but was reinstated to the company after the investigation and resulting arbitration concluded. 

West Side Story has continued to back Ramasar and let him perform as Bernardo, despite public protests that have happened outside the Broadway Theatre, which called for his firing.

“While we support the right of assembly enjoyed by the protestors, the alleged incident took place in a different workplace — the New York City Ballet — which has no affiliation of any kind with West Side Story, and the dispute in question has been both fully adjudicated and definitively concluded according to the specific rules of that workplace, as mandated by the union that represents the parties involved in that incident,” a statement released by the production team read in part.

Despite West Side Story’s certain setbacks, this 2020 revival still has its shining moments. The overall casting of the gangs was superb and the tension between both groups was palpable. The famous “Rumble” scene was a dramatic marriage of dance and fighting, all done in the midst of actual pouring rain. 

The friendships within the gangs were also heartfelt, with the love between Maria and Anita, played by Yesenia Ayala, and Tony and Riff, played by Dharon E. Jones, almost more believable than the love between Maria and Tony themselves. While the revival missed out on really building a connection between the forbidden lovers, the few moments that Powell and Pimentel shared were poignant and both actors’ harmonizing was delicious.

Finally, the struggles of both gangs were noticeably highlighted, especially in the song “America” for the Sharks and “Gee, Officer Krupke ” for the Jets. The latter number makes the audience remember that most of these “dangerous” gang members are just kids who grew up in dysfunctional homes or have been dragged through a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

It’s important social commentary that the original creators of West Side Story, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, worked hard to portray and the message is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 1957.