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  • Wendy Shreve

WEST SIDE STORY REACHES FOR THE STARS


Maria and Tony have a problem. They love each other but his former gang buddies, The Jets, are having a turf war with Maria's brother and his gang, The Sharks.


Adapted from Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet as a hit Broadway musical (1957), then produced for the screen in 1961, and now remade with the titular marquee, West Side Story (2021) has the ingredients for a fresh take on the classic story. Romeo and Juliet had it easy compared to these teenagers.


Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver portrays Tony, a guy who yearns to stay straight (he'd already been to prison for assault) and be with the love of his life, Maria. She, Rachel Zegler, is naïve as well as blind to the hatred emanating from others in her neighborhood. Only loving Tony becomes her desire. He's Polish American; she's Puerto Rican-American. His friend Riff (Mike Faist) represents white loathing for the new immigrants. Her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez) fights for a living but wants to eliminate his real competition, the whites who threaten his hope for a future.


In the mix, Anita (Ariana DeBose)--Bernardo's love and like a sister to Maria. Valentina (the new character, the widow of Doc, played by Rita Moreno) who has employed Tony and wants a better life for him. Then we have Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), Bernardo's friend who isn't in The Sharks, a mirror image of Tony in his aspirations; his love for Maria.


The young leads shine with gorgeous, natural voices, palpable chemistry and fine performances. Among the supporting players, Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino) gives a nuanced, strong portrayal.


Director Steven Spielberg knows how to cast a film. His creative crew, including Production Designer Adam Stockhausen and Costume Designer Paul Tazewell also deserve kudos.


What the movie lacks illustrates Spielberg's unfamiliarity with directing a musical. Justin Peck, a choreographer this critic has admired for his work with The New York City Ballet, misses the mark--one reason there may be limited dancing in this version? Whether the producers couldn't get the rights to Jerome Robbin's choreography or they, along with Spielberg, decided to have a fresher vision, needs further exploration.


Many of the numbers are solid, "Maria," "Tonight," "Officer Krupke" and "One Hand, One Heart." But others less so: they hurt the overall harmony of the film. One glaring illustration involving the great Rita Moreno had me vocalizing my dismay. To give her a song that she cannot sing (her voice has weakened) and that had been written for two other characters shouldn't have happened.


Further, Tony Kushner's screenplay has Riff, for example, using words such as "copacetic." Other moments had this viewer internalizing, "Say what?!" Plus scenes involving Spanish dialogue with English translations by the characters become muddled, though a valiant attempt. To address rumors that the script includes Spanish-only lines without subtitles, the issue isn't one. Knowing Spanish 101 helps, but non-speakers/listeners will be able to infer the meaning sans a dictionary.


No debating that the original West Side Story had offensive or head-scratching casting: a non-Hispanic Natalie Wood, who couldn't sing, as Maria along with Richard Beymer as Tony whose singing had to be dubbed, too. But after seeing the re-envisioned adaptation, the predecessor artistically continues to rank as the definitive version. That said, if you haven't seen the original, enough positive elements exist in this film to keep the viewer entertained.


West Side Story 2021 reaches the moon but not the stars.


Rated PG-13 for an unsexy love scene and violence.


Now playing at a theater near you. Locals: check out a show at Wellfleet Cinemas, Wellfleet, MA.



Earlier reviews not seen on this website (before May 20, 2021) are available on https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/wendy-shreve/movies or my previous blog site, featuringfilm.com



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