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Living in Spielberg's West Side Story: a film review

My first exposure to West Side Story was in junior high school when my English teacher had a Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story unit. We read the play, watched the Danes/DiCaprio adaptation, and finished with viewing the 1961 film. It was an engaging unit, though it didn’t much interest me in the musical itself. My 2010 national tour attendance, first time seeing it on stage, helped me appreciate the dancing. In the four years that followed, I grew to love the musical more and more. Its tackling of gangs, New York living, immigrants, dancing, love, etc,. started shaping my respect and awe of just how beautifully written and conceived West Side Story is. In 2014, I had the pleasure of performing the show as A-Rab. It is, to this day, a musical I deeply cherish. Since then, I have seen a few stage productions and can’t help but tear up at certain moments: “Tonight,” and the quintet’s reprise of “Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke!,” and definitely the “Dance at the Gym,” when done right. Seeing this new version by Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Justin Peck, and company had me appreciating the macro-vision Spielberg employed and respect Kushner’s micro-attention to details and themes. While I will re-watch this new rendition of the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents Oscar-winner, I find that Spielberg has certainly made the movie he wanted to make, even if some of the theatrical moments were given short shrift. The story rests on the journeys of the five principals: Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Riff. It’s these arcs and their relationship with one another that drive the story. And while Spielberg and Kushner did a fine job divvying up the macro and micro messages, there are moments of flourish and moments of diluted impact that affect each of the aforementioned characters.

This film’s context and world building is excellent, with the two award-winning creators not shying away from the eviction and urban redevelopment pushing out the Jets from their territory. They’re all fighting over one thing, Riff and Tony exclaim, and it’s territory. This battle for territory, and keeping it at all costs is the central message in this iteration of West Side Story. Rather than focusing on just the love, the direction and screenplay bring to larger focus that everyone living on New York’s west side has a story, and the audience gets to see how they intertwine. However, this is a musical, and musicals have heightened moments of theatricality. Even when it may seem cinematically awkward to show/hear a number, you commit to it. While putting the first meeting between Tony and Maria behind the bleachers makes for quality cinematic visuals, it lessens the punctuation of breaking alliances between the Sharks and Jets. To then make the first kiss a near-accident rather than an intentional moment of passion fills the teenage whirlwind romance with an “Oh, was that supposed to happen?” reaction.

The “Dance at the Gym” is given energy and musical legitimacy, but when Peck’s outstanding reinterpretation of Robbins’ choreography is hidden behind extraneous scene work, the storytelling done through dance becomes a head-bobbing search for the dance rather than seeing more dialogue and close-ups. This musical was written during the Golden Age, where dance continued telling the story and developing the character. Spielberg, not just in this moment but most noticeably here, takes the storytelling away from Peck’s staging by defaulting to Kushner’s script and Janusz Kaminiski’s cinematography, lessening the enjoyment of the dancing at the dance.

Ansel Elgort is a capable Tony and mostly seems to have been cast for his chemistry opposite Mike Faist (Riff), Rachel Zegler (Maria), and even David Alvarez (Bernardo). When acting opposite these phenomenal talents, Elgort’s chops are in good balance. However, structurally, Tony’s first two songs are, traditionally, park-and-bark solos (“Something’s Coming” and “Maria”), both which Elgort does not emotionally deliver on. This is especially noticeable in “Maria,” when Spielberg does the directorial trick of hiding the acting by adding tech and other characters (read: distractions) to the scene, stripping any semblance of a true solo away. That said, Zegler and Elgort nail “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” giving depth to how quickly their love is setting in. It can’t be stressed enough how perfectly cast Rachel Zegler is as Maria, not just an iconic role in the musical canon, but one that is technically difficult to pull off. Zegler could find chemistry with a pet rock if the role called for it, she truly is that grounded in the role. Her honesty and vulnerability are on display from the start, and her journey from enamored lover to hardened widower is one which shows her natural talent, not just an actress who knows how to be directed. Her turn at “I Feel Pretty” is sung beautifully, energetically, youthfully, with enough experience of 24-hour love to inform, but enough ignorant earnestness to show she has such high expectations for what’s to come with an, assumed, life loving Tony.

Ariana DeBose is stellar as Anita, perhaps the film’s highlight performance in a role that demands it. DeBose’s vocals are consistently powerful. Her leadership of the film’s peak number, “America,” establishes her triple-threat abilities. Her pride in living in America is front-and-center, setting up her poignant delivery of claiming Puerto Rican heritage over American residency after the Jets accost her at Doc’s Drugstore. DeBose plays the long game in Anita’s journey, a slow burn you can’t help but be engaged with. The original film's Anita, Rita Moreno is lovely as Valentina, widow of Doc, and is now running the drugstore. The message of a Puerto Rican woman marrying a Caucasian man sets the tone for the split alliance, but there is so much heavy-lifting needed to justify Moreno’s turn at “Somewhere,” which is a delightful rendition at that. However, even with the excessive frontloading and set-up, while also removing the ballet as was done in the original film, it does give Moreno a true solo moment of contemplation and lamenting that is deserved.

David Alvarez is an outstanding Bernardo, the “patriarchal” sibling to Maria and partner to Anita. Making Bernardo a talented boxer not only gives him more at stake than just territory, but gives his character more depth. Alvarez brings some humanizing humor to the frustrations of having to keep his household in order while being constantly reminded by Anita to speak English because they need the practice. Alvarez and Faist are extremely well paired as rival gang leaders, which brings me to: Mike Faist! Where Russ Tamblyn shined as a dancing (read: gymnastically gifted), energetic Riff, Faist delivers a magnetic intensity. From the jump, Faist embodies a chip-on-the-shoulder demeanor which drives his performance. His dance and singing turns, primarily in “Jet Song,” are fluid in capturing the heightened moments of emotion and youthful maturity. However, the solution Spielberg has to “Cool” is to make it about a gun. While I see merit in giving the song to Tony, delivered quite well by Elgort, to calm down Riff rather than Riff to Action and the other Jets, it focuses on the gun, which requires an added scene of purchasing the gun. I’m all about them both reaching for the gun, but I do think Kander and Ebb captured it better. A song about a prop loses the impact of the Jets being a unit, which is given exclamation with the breaking up of the Jets being in this song rather than in the deaths that are about to ensue. And while I respect the Shakespearean tragedy aspect of it all, it does distract from the musicality of the relationships by giving such emphasis to the gun.

Of course there are more than just five roles to note, and several of the supporting characters are given excellent moments. Josh Andres Rivera succeeds in the demanding acting toll thrust upon Chino’s shoulders, one that is a huge derivation from the stage play and original film. Chino is assumed to be part of the Sharks all along, and then eventually gets the gun and kills Tony. But Spielberg and Kushner’s take gives Chino a B-plot journey of hand-picked suitor to Maria, due to Bernardo’s choosing, and Chino is encouraged to avoid the Sharks’ activities. Eventually he and Tony do their best to break up the rumble, but to no avail. Then Chino follows suit as is traditionally written but, again, with a lot of heavy lifting being done simply to justify his more tragic journey, the length of the film gets bogged down with the unnecessary exposition. Brian D’Arcy James is a standout as Officer Krupke, complete with goofiness, lovability, but also dedication to the badge. His moment in “Somewhere,” when helping Anita process the paperwork regarding Bernardo’s death, serves as a micro moment of beautifully displayed ally-ship by separation of bias. Iris Menas’ fresh take on Anybodys is given support from Kushner’s screenplay adjustments, and the performance is a dominant highlight whenever Menas is on screen. Kevin Csolak, as Diesel, superbly leads “Gee, Office Krupke,” encapsulating the vaudevillian-style comedy with natural finesse, which is supported well by the rest of the Jets.

The micro moments certainly find their way to have lasting effects which, in the end, mostly justify the means. Spielberg finds the moments which matter to him in serving the overall purpose of the film. One specific motif I found well-adapted from the original film is the use of circles. At the dance, one circle becomes two, while the Jets dance in one and the Sharks in the other. In “America,” the ending dance sequence is in a circle formation in the intersection of the block, as a celebration of the Puerto Rican community. “The Rumble” is held in a circle once it becomes the Riff-Bernardo showdown, demonstrating the two worlds coming together through violence. When Anita is circled by the Jets in Doc’s, the churning in stomachs is near-immediate, and then intensifies when the Jet girls are removed from the store so the boys can attempt to dive into absolutely despicable behavior, thankfully broken up in time by Valentina. Spielberg capitalizes on these circle moments by letting the space breathe and letting the audience feel as if they’re in the circle with them. And then the breathtaking ending, where Maria challenges the surrounding boys with bullets and focused hate motivated by the mourning process with a quiet, intimate “Te adoro, Anton.” The gangs finally join together in a street processional for Tony, Maria flanking, and Valentina escorting Chino as the police show up to arrest him. It is Spielberg’s use of these various circles that drives home the very impact he intends to make, and make it he does.

This movie is certainly Spielberg’s territory, it’s his circle we are entering, and we do so under a blanket of expectation of a hall-of-fame movie and stage musical, adapted from one of the most popular plays of all-time; so enter, please, but do so at your own risk.

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