NEW YORK — You can teach an old show new kicks.
Van Hove and his choreographer, Belgian postmodernist Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, vowed to come up with a “West Side Story” for a new century and a new audience. In the process, they’ve devised one that honors the old century and an older audience, too. With some slimming and slicking, they’ve reduced the running time: As the intermission and some music have been cut — bye, bye (sad face) “I Feel Pretty” — the tragedy of Tony and Maria unfolds in an astonishing, breathless hour and 45 minutes.
Packed into these 105 minutes are exhilarating new dances to succeed those of the late, great Robbins; a set of movie and video images, projected onto a gigantic screen onstage in the Broadway Theatre; and a recasting that pits the Latinx Sharks against a Jets crew, many of them played by actors of color, too. Who is fighting whom for New York City turf? Well, this “West Side Story” is the tale of an America in 2020 that is destroying itself from within.
Van Hove, a Tony winner in 2016 for his direction of “A View From the Bridge,” had never staged a Broadway musical before. His approach here is irreverent, in the sense that there’s not much discernible sentimentality for the form. This leads both to thrilling artistic liberties — and a minor glitch or two. On the glorious side is the full emotional embrace of the romance between a new generation’s Tony and Maria, played by the marvelously paired Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel. Spectacular, too, are De Keersmaeker’s resetting of the dance at the gym and the prologue, which commences with dancers executing a unison sway — adolescent swagger as performance art — in which the Sharks and the Jets size up one another for the slaughter to come.
And, whoa, when violence erupts in the fateful rumble by the highway! Van Hove and De Keersmaeker conceive of it as a full-blown storm of rainwater and testosterone, on a bare, soaked stage. As the Jets of yore themselves might say, “Whammo! Blammo!” Possibly even better is the aftermath: With the bodies of dead and wounded men strewn across the concrete battlefield, their women arriving to claim or comfort them, you’re reminded of the bloody tidings of “Henry V” and the killing field of Agincourt.
I’d heard reports from others during the long previewing period for “West Side Story” — where performances began Dec. 10 and its official opening night was held Thursday — that the production’s prominent cinematic conceit was a hindrance to narrative coherence. Maybe because I’ve grown accustomed to video as a theater tool, it didn’t seem a distraction. In any event, as he has proved in productions like his stage adaptation of “Network,” van Hove is devoted to the device, and here it’s used brilliantly. Shots of the actors on city streets, some of them edited into montages, run on that back-wall screen as the characters execute the theatrical elements of “West Side Story” on the minimally adorned set by scenery and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld. The realism of cinema converges mesmerizingly with the representational schema of the stage.
The expository scenes occur in prop-filled cubicles upstage, in the dress shop where Maria and Anita (Yesenia Ayala) work and in the candy store operated by Doc, here played with an ideal, impotent exasperation by Daniel Oreskes. The cubicles function like portals between the stage and filmed action: Actors with video cameras follow their castmates into obscured corners of these spaces, and audiences must shift to the screen to see everything that’s happening.
This becomes crucial in the upsetting scene in Doc’s store, in which the grief-stricken and adrenaline-drenched Jets set upon Anita and sexually assault her. After Doc rushes in to stop them, the camera catches the youngest Jet, Baby John (Matthew Johnson), curled up in a fetal position in a corner. An audience accustomed to violence captured in close-up absorbs the shock of the act as a sad fact of modern life. That the show itself has become embroiled in controversy over an alleged sexual transgression makes the moment all the more intense: Demonstrations have been organized outside the theater at some performances in protest of the casting of New York City Ballet star Amar Ramasar as Bernardo. In 2018, he was accused of receiving explicit photos of a dance student and sharing an explicit image of his girlfriend in return. The ballet reinstated him after a proceeding, and the “West Side Story” management has issued a statement backing him.
Ramasar makes for an elegant ruffian, if not an entirely stellar Bernardo. Like Ayala’s Anita and Dharon E. Jones’s Riff, this is a polished performance, but not the standout turn of some other versions. Bernstein’s melodies and Sondheim’s lyrics for “West Side Story” remain nonpareil, some of the most lushly soul-stirring theater music ever written. The voices here in some cases come across as merely adequate, though the rage-fueled rethink of “Gee, Officer Krupke” is excellently accommodated by the actors’ rugged vocal delivery.
Beauty is reserved here for the sounds emanating from Pimentel’s captivating Maria and the extraordinary rendition of “Maria” that Powell performs. I’ve never before believed so fervidly that Tony has found the girl with whom he was meant to be. In streamlining the script and finding his Tony and Maria, van Hove has, like an artist with a degree in cardiology, operated on “West Side Story” and freshly exposed its passionate, throbbing heart.
West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Choreography, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker; sets and lighting, Jan Versweyveld; costumes, An D’Huys; sound, Tom Gibbons. With Jacob Guzman. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $39-$229. At Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.