West Side Story – 4.75 stars

West Side Story' Is Not for Puerto Ricans Like Me

Steven Spielberg‘s vibrant, fluid update subtly modernizes but stays traditional to the original in all the right places.  The “daddy-o” is largely excised but the film still feels like a night at the most expansive Broadway theater.

To be fair, it’s hard to miss the mark too wide with such rich source material. Unlike most musicals, in West Side Story, no number is unmemorable. There isn’t even one that is weak.

The dance at the gym and “America” are particularly good. In the first, Tony and Maria do not melt into the frantic gyrations of the Jets and Sharks, but rather are drawn beneath the bleachers, where, smitten, they have a charming conversation. Before the scene becomes too standard, a snap of Maria’s fingers beautifully cements their attraction and we are returned to the fantasy of dance. In the latter, the call and refrain of the Sharks as to the merits and drawbacks of their new home starts small in an apartment and blossoms in a wondrous, joyful romp culminating in the intersection of a city street.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) makes several changes to the original, placing the gangs in the peril of urban renewal, beefing up the role of Chino, humanizing Officer Krupke, and providing a critical backstory for Tony which tempers his infatuation with an internal struggle that explodes at the rumble. While more talky, none of the updating is balky or detracts from the music and choreography, which remains front and center.

Three nits. First, Tony (Ansel Elgort) takes a while to imprint. His first number (“Something’s Coming”) doesn’t help. It is geographically limited, stuck as he is in the basement of the drugstore, and Tony just feels a bit muted. It is only until he meets Maria that he starts to connect with the audience.

Second, Spielberg gives us a sparse “Cool”, and moves the song back to before the rumble. It feels like a missed opportunity.  The 1961 film placed the number after the killings, smartly delaying it from the stage play so the Jets could exercise their frustration and hate after the murders in a bravura ensemble dance. Here, the song is a little bit lackluster, and you pine for the highly stylized original, Worse, it’s Tony and Riff, a couple of Jets relegated to onlookers, gymnastically squaring off over a gun. 

Finally, the placement of “I Feel Pretty” is awkward, falling right after the rumble. It’s a delicate, ingenious number, but you are jarred to be placed into such a moment of hope and beauty given where Spielberg has taken you tonally just seconds before. 

Everyone is good and despite my fears, Rita Moreno as Doc’s widow never nears gimmick (she’s a lock for best supporting actress ). The picture is perhaps not doing as well as it would with a marquee name (Elgort is the best known of the young troupe and that ain’t saying much). But one can hope it makes stars, in particular, Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose as Anita. It is difficult to take your eyes off of either. Zegler was selected from over 30,000 applicants for the role and invests Maria’s innocence with a blossoming independence and steel that pays off ten-fold in “A Boy Like That.” DeBose is never less than commanding. And, unlike the original, they, like all the actors, expertly do their own singing.

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