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.

By Lynn Venhaus
EGOT winner Rita Moreno, who will turn 90 on Dec. 11, traveled from Puerto Rico to America with her mother when she was 5 years old. She would go on to a legendary career as an actress, singer and dancer that has spanned 70 years.

A candid documentary, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” is a loving and illuminating look at her life and struggles.

Just when you think this will be a fawning showbiz portrait, Moreno matter-of-factly points out the bumps in the road in a difficult journey to stardom. She shares intimate details about the racism and sexism she endured on Broadway and in Hollywood, reveals jaw-dropping abuse and a toxic relationship with Marlon Brando.

Her resilience, and talent, would help her triumph over adversity – but what a remarkable, strong woman. Fiesty and fearless now, the former Rosita Dolores Alverio is still going strong. She is an executive producer on Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” to be released this December, and was on the rebooted sitcom “One Day at a Time” from 2017 to 2020.

 Often cast as a stereotypical ethnic minority early in her career, she discusses her efforts to break barriers, fight for representation and forge a path for other artists.

Winning the Oscar in 1962

The talking heads include George Chakiris, fellow Oscar winner for “West Side Story” (1961) as Bernardo to her Anita; Morgan Freeman, who appeared with her on PBS’ “The Electric Company,” for which she won a Grammy; and Latino performers who consider her a role model: Gloria Estefan, Eva Longoria, Justina Machado. Karen Olivo and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is one of the executive producers on the documentary.

The spry Moreno, a widow and mother of one daughter, is a marvel of movement. An activist ready to take to the streets, she chronicles her early involvement in civil rights and how she continues to fight injustice.

The career achievements are vast – including two Emmys, for ‘The Rockford Files” and “The Muppet Show,” and a Tony for “The Ritz” in 1975. The director has inserted copious amounts of archival footage, and Moreno’s body of work is impressive.

For 89 minutes, this fascinating and inspiring documentary shows how the gutsy Moreno survived – and thrived – in a cutthroat business. I’m eager to see the next chapter.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” is a 2021 documentary directed by Mariem Perez Riera.
It is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some strong language including a sexual reference, and suggestive material, and has a run-time of 1 hour, 30 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A

Available in local theatres June 18
and at the Tribeca Film Festival June 9-20, with virtual screenings at Tribeca at Home through June 23.