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Alex Reynolds reviews Spielberg’s West Side Story

Alex Reynolds reviews Spielberg’s West Side Story

Alex Reynolds

“West Side Story” (topping my musical theatre favourites list), was born on Broadway in1957, and grew with 732 performances before going on tour. Four creative minds, Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (his Broadway debut as lyricist…passed away in November), Arthur Laurents (book), and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography), were parents to the show now considered an international theatrical classic. In essence, the narrative updates Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet’s love affair torn apart by feuding families.

Now the iconic musical has a big screen makeover based on the 1961 award winning film. It’s a labour of love from Stephen Spielberg who is being applauded for turning out a classic by re-imagining a classic. Spielberg, who has three Oscars on his mantle, grew up with affection for the theatre and particularly “West Side Story.”

“This is my first musical. I’ve been a fan of musicals my entire life, but you can’t be a fan and a director of musicals just because you’re a fan,” he said. “I surrounded myself with some of the best people from Broadway. Instead of bringing Broadway to Hollywood and making them do it my way, I basically had them adopt me.”

“West Side Story” (in theatres) is a musical better appreciated on stage (my viewpoint) though the 1961 film, dominated the box office, and swept the Oscars, winning for best film and justifiably noted as a masterwork. Spielberg’s restructuring (not major) holds true to its predecessor which, based on many viewings, remains my preference.

Set in the Upper West side of Manhattan in the 1950s, the narrative focuses on the racial strife between the Jets, an all-white street gang (primarily Irish and Italian-American descendants) led by Riff , and the rival Sharks, a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants led by Bernardo. The Jets, lamenting the Sharks invasive tactics on their turf, consider one big rumble will settle the matter once and for all – even if winning requires fighting with knives and guns.

Bernstein’s magnificent score, and Robbins spirited choreography boldly anchor the unsettling seething raw emotions of the combat, and the tender emergence of a love between Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers spanning two cultures. Spielberg’s cinema telling is faithful in presenting Shakespeare’s long ago love fable modernized for Broadway as a song and dance tragedy (Justin Peck’s choreography pays homage to Jerome Robbins original creative steps), where the Montague and Capulet families are engaged in a blood feud.

“West Side Story” is an extravaganza, inducing nostalgia, but with a modern feeling of brutal warfare. There’s no sugarcoating the despondency of youth cornered in a disordered mixture of violence and desperation. The Sharks gang has no future. Spielberg spotlights their emotional stress of feeling marginalized in a 1950s white environment by increasing the intensity level on a par with the upheaval realities of the 2000s? This is where the director’s makeover hits hard with raw emotions of combat and tender love. By contrast, Tony and Maria represent the possibility of happiness in the musical’s anthem of hope, “Somewhere….there’s a place for us”). Originally it was the lovers’ duet, but is now sung by 90-year-old Rita Moreno in a cameo role. She won an Oscar for her role as Anita in the earlier film.

Spielberg holds an elite position among Hollywood directors, but helming the screen adaption of a fabled Broadway musical was unexpected, at least to this writer. He injects a new reality using a cast of Latin actors replacing the awkward and superficial clumsy accents of Natalie Wood’s Maria and of the Sharks portrayed by non-Latino performers. Ansel Elgort as Tony, and Rachel Zegler as Maria, are a winning combination, and the songs, though familiar, still pack emotional balance.

Humanity struggles to find harmony during a time of deep-rooted cultural divisions. As Romeo and Juliet dared to love in their time of deep divisions, so too, Maria and Tony face the onslaught of hatred in our time. “West Side Story”, onstage in 1957 and on film in 1961, earned audience and critic plaudits, becoming “classics”. Stephen Spielberg’s reimagined makeover is becoming a classic in the 2000s.

THE DEATH OF A MUSICAL

“Come From Away” is an original Canadian created theatrical musical which has been welcomed with open arms, rapturous applause, and international critical praise. It’s an achievement because there’s not a large input of Canadiana on Broadway, but this show has been a major performing arts flagwaver for creative talent from the Great White North.

Unfortunately, because of Covid, the curtain has fallen on the Mirvish production at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, which is incredibly sad.The most successful Canadian musical of all time has permanently closed after playing for 855 performances. More than one million patrons have seen the show during its run which began in 2018.

Producer David Mirvish explains: “This is not the way any of us wanted this to end. “Come From Away” deserves to have had many more years at the Royal Alex. But the risks, uncertainty and financial situation have left us without another realistic outcome.”

One must retain a sense of geniality as reflected in the show’s exuberant opening anthem. The full cast extends a foot stomping invitation…..”Welcome To The Rock”.

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