The Belgian director Ivo van Hove is invariably referred to as “avant-garde,” but, considering that he has spent more than two decades making theatre in this country, including three recent productions on Broadway, that thorny honorific no longer really fits. The avant period is over; he is simply part of the garde, influential and much imitated, not least by himself. Van Hove is celebrated for his austere, violent, video-heavy stagings, which attempt to reveal the hidden layers of classic texts. When it was announced that he would be taking on “West Side Story,” among the most beloved and fraught of American musicals, the buzz began. Now, after more than a year of preparation and no shortage of complications—two injured stars, one of whom had to drop out; a delayed opening; a nightly rally, held in front of the theatre, to protest the casting, as Bernardo, of Amar Ramasar (a New York City Ballet principal who was fired from and then reinstated to that company after sharing nude photos of a colleague), a foreseeable controversy that the producers have responded to in stiff, baffled fashion—van Hove’s “West Side Story” has at last opened (at the Broadway). The production is an infuriating example of what happens when a powerful style calcifies into shtick—infuriating because so much that is exciting, even revelatory, here is crushed beneath the director’s insistence on a vision that feels narrow and doctrinaire. He wants to make us see an iconic work with new eyes, but all we can see is him.

The play, loosely updated to the present, opens in moody silence, as a line of young men files onto the vast, naked stage. Their faces are projected by video camera onto the enormous wall behind them, and the orchestra strikes up its first notes. The menace and the delight of Leonard Bernstein’s score feel irrepressible, but these boys know how to repress—to “play it cool,” as they later sing. They are in street wear, immaculate sneakers and glossy track jackets, sweatsuits, and beanies (An D’Huys did the appealing costume design); they have branded their necks with tattoos reading “Jet for Life.” Another line of boys appears, edgy and coiled—the Sharks—and a fight breaks out. Someone is knifed; somebody else films the assault with a smartphone, and shaky footage of the grimacing boy clutching his bloody ear fills the backdrop as bodies thrash below. The melee is interrupted by the nasty Lieutenant Schrank (Thomas Jay Ryan), and the Sharks scatter, leaving the Jets to regroup and pledge their allegiance to themselves:

When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, imprinted on generations of American brains, are as thrilling as ever, but when the Jets’ leader, Riff (Dharon E. Jones), sings them they are not so much a declaration of solidarity as a threat. He and his crew are far from the carefree showboaters of the original, 1957 Broadway production or the 1961 movie, snapping and leaping in Jerome Robbins’s indelible choreography. Those Jets were inventing the American teen-age experience, coming alive to the possibility of power and control in a world where adult authority had crumbled; their bragging felt childish, all hot talk, until, suddenly, the game got real. These Jets know that they have signed a death pact. The turn is typical of van Hove, who is determined to snuff out any lightness that might temper the full-blown tragedy to come. (To that end, he has cut the song “I Feel Pretty” and trimmed Arthur Laurents’s sleek book, already one of the shortest in Broadway history, to keep the play to an intermissionless hour and forty-five minutes.) There’s no joy to be found on these streets.

But what streets are they? As the Jets discuss their plans to challenge the Sharks at the school dance that evening, the video screen shows a dead-end block lined with shuttered warehouses, a nowhere land that could be on the edge of any city in the industrialized world. (Van Hove’s partner and frequent collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, did the scenic and lighting design; Luke Halls did the video design.) The camera advances in a slow dolly shot, producing the weightless, gliding momentum of a first-person shooter game. This moving streetscape, like others that occur throughout the play, bears no perspectival relationship to the actors on the stage; it shrinks and dislocates them. When the Jets sing, van Hove projects recorded footage of the cast gallivanting around Brooklyn, chewing on gold chains and mugging for the camera in pastiches of rap-music videos, which dwarfs the actors with their own gigantic images. In the next scene, he plays peekaboo with them as they disappear into Doc’s drugstore, a bodega cut into the back wall that looks as tiny as a doll house, and the action is live-streamed onscreen above the abandoned stage. As a metaphor—for the insignificance of these characters’ lives in a vast, hostile world, perhaps?—the technique is banal. As a theatrical device, it is a ludicrous waste, verging on an insult to the actors, who can’t hope to compete with the billboard-size versions of themselves that loom over their heads.

This is all the more disappointing because they are a gorgeous cast, youthful, fresh—more than thirty actors are making their Broadway débuts—and physically spectacular, especially in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography, which, with its sharply thrown elbows and triangular formations, closes the gap between modernist constructivism and TikTok体育投注网平台 preening. When Tony (Isaac Powell) appears, he is lithe and jittery, jabbing the air with his hand as if he wanted to freestyle, though he is contractually obliged to sing one of the simplest and most sublime songs in musical theatre, “Something’s Coming,” which he does, beautifully, with a supple, mellow voice. Shereen Pimentel’s Maria is another revelation. In body and attitude, Pimentel is the welcome opposite of Natalie Wood, who fixed the role in the American mind as a virgin verging on sainthood. This Maria is a girl with curves and spirit, and one of the things that the production gets right is the puppyish attraction between the young lovers, who touch each other with a hunger tinged by natural self-consciousness. The senselessness of the tragedy that befalls them is not that they were destined to be together forever. It’s that they could have helped each other get out, grow up, and learn how to be free.

Van Hove, who auditioned more than a thousand actors, has done something unusual and intriguing in his casting. The Puerto Rican Sharks are played by Latino actors, which is a relief; we are far from the miserable days of brownface. (Yesenia Ayala, who moves like a knife across the stage, is a highlight as Anita; Ramasar, leaning heavily on a gluey “Spanish” accent, is the weak link.) Meanwhile, the Jets, originally a white gang made up of the sons and grandsons of Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants—“an anthology of what is called ‘American,’ ” Laurents wrote in the script—are a diverse bunch; in fact, the white actor Ben Cook, who was first cast as Riff, was replaced by the talented Jones, who is black, when Cook was injured. With apologies to Cook, that may have been a stroke of luck, since it’s more conceivable that white street kids would pay allegiance to a black leader—there’s that haunted idea of American “cool” again, inextricable from white obsession with African-American culture—than the other way around.

Advertisement

And yet the casting introduces tangled layers of complexity that van Hove has either misunderstood or ignored. The lyrics of the film version of “America”—in which Anita and the Shark women sing of their love of the country’s capitalist conveniences, and the men sing of its brutality and bankrupt racism—remain as current as Twitter discourse, if, mercifully, a lot cleverer. “Life is all right in America,” the women sing, and the men reply, “If you’re all white in America,” but I didn’t hear that line in this production, maybe because it makes less sense for the Sharks to sing it when it no longer applies to their adversaries. Meanwhile, the production has confusingly kept references to both gangs’ immigrant status. “Who asked you to come here?” Riff says to Bernardo; Bernardo’s retort—“Who asked you?”—has a bitter, unintended irony in the context of African-American history.

体育投注网平台Or take the classic comic number “Officer Krupke,” which van Hove reframes as an indictment of the carceral state and accompanies with a bleak video montage of young men being humiliated and abused by the police. Naturally, this plays to big applause, but the effect is obvious and pandering, effacing the specificity of the characters’ experience in favor of generic sociological observations. Changing the tone of the song, which is performed here with spitting fury, would have been enough. The dark side of the American Dream is not a subtext of “West Side Story,” waiting to be excavated through appallingly didactic images—like that of the Puerto Rican and American flags strung up on a chain-link fence, which appears during “America,” or, worse, an aerial shot of the border wall with Mexico that looks like something out of a dystopian travel infomercial. The critique has been right there on the surface all along.

Van Hove used to wage war on naturalism. Naturalism, however, has caught up to him. It is no longer strange to see the world filtered through a screen; that’s how we do most of our seeing. Here and there, we get startling glimpses of what van Hove could do, if he were to return to eye level and reground himself in the idiom of the stage. The rumble that closes the first act is one such exquisite moment. The screen goes blessedly dark, and we are free to focus on the enraged, passionate bodies that fly and claw at one another, as lightning crackles through the theatre and an unseen sky opens to release torrents of rain. It’s like witnessing an act of God—clear, spectacular, and all too brief. ♦