West Side Story
Credit: Julieta Cervantes

How do you solve a problem like a remake? Play it too faithfully and you’re just doing karaoke, or community theater; stray too far and you risk losing the thread of the original text — or worse, insulting it.

Much of Belgian-born director Ivo van Hove’s career has sprung from bringing his particular sensibility to plays already long settled in the public imagination: foundational classics like The Crucible, Hedda Gabbler, and A Streetcar Named Desire all rendered starker, Scandi-er, almost strenuously modern. (In 2016, he took home two Tonys for his bare-box revival of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge).

But West Side Story isn’t some cool Ibsen chamber piece or even humid Tennessee Williams; it’s a joyful multicolored musical whose 1961 film version, winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, has held an iconic place in pop culture for nearly 60 years. So is it sacrilege that van Hove picks up Story by its popped collar and drags it into approximately current-day, and then strips some 45 minutes from the original runtime, including entire canonical songs?

Maybe, though it’s his staging that will likely divide audiences more sharply than the loss of “I Feel Pretty”: a technically ingenious if oddly untheatrical setup that relies heavily on handheld camera work, headset microphones, and recessed rooms.

There are still Jets and Sharks, and they still rumble — except they now come to battle bearing smartphones, which tends to make the use of words like “rumble” feel that much more anachronistic. And there’s a lovely Tony and Maria (Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, respectively) at the center as the sweet but doomed pairing whose forbidden love drives a deeper wedge between the two gangs.

The cast comes stacked with vibrant young talent, and it’s a general pleasure to watch them all move across the stage, even if the brisk work of choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker never feels like an entirely necessary update of Jerome Robbins’ iconic steps. (The continued real-life controversy surrounding the play’s Bernardo, New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar, also adds a jarring extracurricular note.)

One of the boldest decisions, perhaps, is to project so much of it on a ceiling-height screen behind them — a choice which also allows the actors to calibrate their performances more toward screen naturalism than a Broadway stage. (Though it does few favors to the distractingly visible tape on the head mics, or to the plethora of heavy neck and chest tattoos that too often look like poorly inked approximations of the real thing).

Two concealed doors at the rear of a conspicuously bare stage turn out to hold much of the action; one a sort of crowded drugstore/bodega hybrid called Doc’s, and the other a busy, cozy sewing room where the women tend to congregate. Other setpieces happen offstage entirely in concealed anterooms, or strictly onscreen in stylized New York street scenes.

For all its high-concept minimalism, the production tends to tackle certain themes, like immigration and police brutality, with a literalism that borders on cliché: stock footage of Puerto Rico to match the “tropical breezes” bits in “America,” and rippling stars and stripes when it crosses over; a pair of grizzled cop characters who feel both malevolent and silly in their central-casting bravado. (The iPhone cameras that several gang members hold aloft when one of those officers threatens to get rough conveys the message far more effectively, without saying a word).

And yet, it’s almost impossible to resist the timeless pull of “Jet Song” and “Tonight,” or the unbridled joy of a boy who just met a girl named Maria. If van Hove’s many liberties feel sometimes like a necessary refresh and other times like mere miscalculation, it almost doesn’t matter in the end; there’s still a place — somehow, someday, somewhere — for West Side‘s story, whatever form it takes. B

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