WEST SIDE STORY – Review by Pam Grady

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The most curious alteration director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner make to the American musical classic West Side Story in their hotly anticipated remake is to take away from the central couple Tony and Maria their tragic theme, “Somewhere,” a song of longing for a brighter future when all seems lost. Instead, they give it to Valentina, the elderly owner of the drug store, where Tony’s gang, the Jets, hang out.

It is an insane modification to the story but the reason behind it seems obvious. Rita Moreno, who won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Anita in Robert Wise’s 1961 production, plays Valentina. (She’s also an executive producer on the new film.) Giving her a song elevates a minor role into one befitting an EGOT. It also maybe gives her an opportunity at a second West Side Story Academy nomination 60 years after the first.

There are other changes to the placement and circumstances of some songs and a beefed-up plot that adds more detail to the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the Manhattan characters’ lives – some too on-the-nose, such as when NYPD Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) reminds the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks that through urban renewal they are literally losing the turf over which they so energetically and idiotically battle. Dialogue in the new version is in English and Spanish (sans subtitles). And while the actors playing the Sharks are not 100 percent Puerto Rican, they are all Latino.

Despite those differences, Spielberg’s West Side Story will feel familiar to anyone who has seen Wise’s film. It is not just Leonard Bernstein’s timeless score or his and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s classic songs, but also in the way Justin Peck’s choreography echoes Jerome Robbins’ and costume designer Paul Tazewell’s outfits pay homage to Irene Sharaff’s Oscar-winning creations.

As open warfare breaks out between the Jets and the Sharks, the standout characters remain the mercurial Jets’ head Riff (Tony nominee Mike Faist), the Sharks’ passionate leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, a Tony winner at 15 for Billy Elliot: The Musical), and Anita (Tony nominee Ariana DeBose), Bernardo’s girlfriend who has ambitions of her own. When these three characters are on the screen and when the musical numbers break out, West Side Story is riveting. In particular, the initial meeting between the gangs that opens the film, “Jet Song,” the dance in the gym, “Gee, Office Krupke” (staged in the bullpen of a police station), “Cool,” and “America” (reimagined as an exuberant neighborhood whirl through the neighborhood) are enchanting.

The problem with this urban spin on Romeo and Juliet is the same one that has plagued it since Arthur Laurents wrote the original book for the Broadway musical. Ernest Lehman could not solve it in his screenplay for the 1961 edition and Kushner does not solve it now, and that is the black hole in the center of the screen: Tony and Maria. In her screen debut, Rachel Zegler proves herself a talented charismatic performer, but she is trapped inhabiting the skin of a character who exists only to be a young girl in love.

An attempt to add a little color to Tony by making him an ex-con falls flat. The character is such a milquetoast that that element hardly seems credible, even as it gives big brother Bernardo an additional reason to be concerned beyond Tony being a Jet and not Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), the accounting student he has earmarked as his future brother-in-law. Casting Ansel Elgort as Tony doesn’t help matters: A bland actor playing a bland character.

Bottom line: There is a reason Moreno and her Bernardo, George Chakiris, won Oscars 60 years and there is a reason DuBose and Alvarez, should they be nominated (and they should), might very well take statues home in 2022. Anita and Bernardo are the characters that are full of passion in West Side Story. Their situation is what makes the story gripping. That was true back them and remains so.

Steven Spielberg has scratched an itch. He has done so with style and with deep respect for the classic film that came before his, and with the grace note of finding a role for that immortal who walks among us, Moreno, and making it something that would complement her work from decades ago. He has added his name to an ageless property. It’s just a shame that, to borrow a phrase from a different musical, he hasn’t solved the problem of Maria (and Tony).

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic. She is currently President of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle.