- West Side Story
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Back on Broadway, director Ivo van Hove, renowned for his radical re-interpretations of classic texts, has turned his bold eye on the beloved musical West Side Story. van Hove updated the setting to the current day, cut enough of the script to keep the performance under two hours (without intermission, when I attended in previews), and framed the entire production with extensive film projection. The remarkable design and some strong acting provided many striking moments. However, some elements proved disappointing: occasionally excessive video and blocking that badly interfered with the singing. While directing undeniably innovative theater, van Hove seemed to forget to focus on one fundamental aspect of this form: the music. Especially given this musical's source material, I was reminded of productions of Shakespeare's plays that, while stunningly staged, ignored the poetry.
The creativity of this production was impressive. Keeping the stage almost entirely bare, van Hove, along with his longtime collaborator in set and lighting design, Jan Versweyveld, and video designer Luke Halls, fashioned spectacle out of film, some pre-recorded, some captured and projected live. From the first slow pan of the heads and torsos of the Jets and Sharks—standing in a line, snapping their fingers, and scowling (and sporting some impressive ink, courtesy of makeup and tattoo designer Andrew Sotomayor)—the camera was an integral part of the storytelling. Frequently, the audience could see mobile camera operators navigating the action on stage, as they did during the dance at the gym, weaving in and out of the dancers while the dynamic images flashed on the scrim behind. Sometimes the camera was unseen and static. At one point during the dance, the projected view switched to an overhead and downward shot with Maria in the middle, bodies swirling around her.
Maybe the most effective camera use was when the audience viewed via screen the scenes played in Doc's drugstore and the bridal shop. Both locations were sets built behindthe stage's back wall, in remarkably thorough and realistic detail. However, physically, the audience could see only partially through the back doors what was going on within. As the actors came and went from these sets, our views shifted between stage and screen, between live people and projected images. Our first encounters [End Page 283]with Tony and Maria were off-stage, as it were, and that was also where they played their pivotal love scene, "One hand, one heart." The camera allowed us to see the actors' facial expressions and small gestures up close, increasing intimacy, despite the audience's actual distance. Even more moving—appropriately appalling, actually—was how the video projection contributed to van Hove's aggressive, grim staging of the scene in which Anita is assaulted by the Jets in Doc's store. Then the camera acted as a cold device of surveillance, documenting in grainy CCTV-like footage the criminal act of A-Rab raping Anita.
Much less effective were the background montages showing prerecorded film of locations like a New York street, or beaches in Puerto Rico, intercut with politically charged images like US President Trump's infamous border wall. In the absence of other scenery, these videos provided some illustration of place, perhaps, but mostly they felt unnecessary and awkward. For example, the contrast of the view of gorgeous resorts with footage of hurricane destruction came across as gratuitous—a forced attempt to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of the musical. At worst, this felt...