By Lynn Venhaus
This re-imagining of the classic Broadway musical is magnificent. “West Side Story” is brimming with vitality and breathtaking songs.
With so many expectations, director Steven Spielberg has made smart choices – honoring the original yet finessed it for a new generation.
Star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria meet, and they are connected with two rival gangs in a modern slant on “Romeo and Juliet” – only it’s the mean streets of Manhattan in an unfriendly urban jungle, where the Jets and the Sharks each want to rule the turf. Adapted by Arthur Laurents into the 1957 stage musical, which became a smash hit movie in 1961, earning 11 Academy Awards, and features music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Renowned playwright Tony Kushner’s grittier script effectively expanded the backstories, made the relationships more intimate and urgent. Spielberg’s go-to Janusz Kaminski’s vintage-hued cinematography pops – the film’s look and sound stands out.
The musical numbers have been staged with great care and are seamlessly integrated into the story. The work of choreographer Justin Peck, artistic director of New York City Ballet, is exquisite. It would be hard to top visionary Jerome Robbins, who not only conceived the 1957 musical but also directed and choreographed it, but what Peck achieves with lean, muscular and lithe dancers in the dynamic “Dance at the Gym” and an epic bold, swirling, vibrant “America” that spills out into the streets like an impromptu carnival is stunning.
There isn’t a better musical score – “Tonight,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Something’s Coming,” “The Jet Song,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and more. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s music is timeless –orchestrations are lush while the young vocalists deliver the Stephen Sondheim lyrics with depth and understanding.
An impressive mix of Broadway and Hollywood talent elevates it – especially with youthful energy and soaring vocal chops. Tony winner David Alvarez (“Billy Elliot”) and Mike Faist (Connor Murphy in original Broadway cast of “Dear Evan Hansen”) are electric as Bernardo and Riff. Ariana deBose is ablaze as Anita while newcomer Rachel Zegler is something special as Maria. The others are so dazzling that Ansel Elgort is the weakest link as a blander Tony, but he can sing and dance.
Best of all is Rita Moreno in a new role as Doc’s wife. If she is nominated (and she should), it won’t be as a sentimental career nod — it will be because she is that good. After all, she is an EGOT winner (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) and to this day, is the only Latino to win an Oscar, for playing Anita in “West Side Story.”
Character actors Corey Stoll and Brian D’Arcy James play Lt. Shrank and Officer Krupke, the old-guard police guys trying to keep peace.
The modern retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” remains relevant and should excite a new audience like the 1961 movie did in its day.
While some didn’t think the movie should be messed with, it was 60 years ago, with a predominantly white cast and leads whose singing voices were dubbed, so it wasn’t perfect, and the updates are effective in bringing it into the 21st century – while keeping the time references the same.
“West Side Story” is an extremely challenging musical, and they manage to pull it off with style and grace. It deserves an audience – to be seen on a big screen in all its full technicolor glory — and I hope it lives on as a remarkable example of new approaches to a beloved classic that work.
“West Side Story” is a 2021 musical directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, Arianna Debose, Mike Faist, Corey Stoll, Brian D’Arcy and Rita Moreno. It is rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking, and it’s run time is 2 hours, 36 minutes. In theaters Dec. 10. Lynn’s Grade: A.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.