By Richard Ades
After a preview screening, critics usually clear the room as soon as the end credits start to roll. But after a recent screening of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, several critics (including this one) remained in their seats. Either they were too mesmerized to move or they couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear a few more minutes’ worth of those iconic tunes.
First presented as a stage musical in 1957, West Side Story transposes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a New York neighborhood divided between two rival gangs: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the non-Latino Jets. Trouble brews and inevitably leads to tragedy when a former Jet named Tony falls in love with Maria, sister of the head Shark, Bernardo.
With a book by Arthur Laurents, a glorious score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the musical caught fire and inspired a classic, multiple-Oscar-winning 1961 movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Full disclosure: As a fan of the stage play and particularly of the original flick, I approached this new Spielberg remake with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Would it deviate from the Wise-Robbins version, thus marring perfection? Or, conversely, would it offer a slavish clone, thus raising the question “Why did they bother?”
The welcome answer is that the new movie, with a script by the great Tony Kushner (Angels in America), stays true to the spirit of the original. When it deviates, it does so in ways that are tasteful and often necessary to bring the story up to date with modern mores even though the action remains in the 1950s.
On the surface, the most obvious change is that Maria and the rest of the Puerto Rican characters are now played by Latino/Latina actors rather than Gringos in tan makeup. In a more subtle innovation, it’s announced from the beginning that the neighborhood shared by both gangs is marked for demolition to make way for ritzier dwellings. The underlying message is that the Sharks and Jets are fighting each other in a battle that ultimately will be decided by forces beyond their control. (Its relevance to modern-day America is hard to miss.)
Still, at its core, this remains the story of the dangerous romance between Maria and Tony. And it’s still told by way of the most beautiful music ever written for a stage musical, and punctuated by deliriously spirited dance steps (adapted by Justin Peck from Robbins’s original choreography).
My only serious disappointment with the new film is that one of the leading actors seems miscast. Ansel Elgort was fine the title character in 2017’s Baby Driver, but he often makes an inexpressive Tony, and he sings with a voice that’s good but not great. In compensation, Rachel Zegler’s Maria has a vulnerable face and the voice of an angel, hitting those high notes with ease. It’s largely thanks to her that their duets, such as “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” are among the film’s many highlights.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong, starting with Ariana DeBose as Bernardo’s mind-of-her-own girlfriend, Anita. Though DeBose doesn’t create quite as many waves as Rita Moreno did in her Oscar-winning 1961 performance, she’s a powerful presence and dances up a hurricane in colorful numbers such as “America.” In other key roles, David Alvarez is mercurial but dignified as Shark leader Bernardo, while Mike Faist projects pride mixed with desperation as Jets leader Riff.
Best of all, Moreno herself (who turns 90 on Dec. 11) plays Valentina, a Puerto Rican shopkeeper who has helped Tony get his life back together after a brief stint in prison. In a surprising twist, she’s given the honor of singing “Somewhere,” the wistful lament sung by Tony and Maria in 1961. It turns out to be one of the new film’s most touching moments.
Though I originally worried about what Spielberg might change, one of my minor quibbles has to do with something he didn’t change: The Jets’ comic number “Gee, Officer Krupke” now seems dated, a blast from the past that’s turned into a dud amid the new film’s heightened sense of reality.
But that and other qualms fade away as the story heads into its final half-hour and the gears begin to turn toward its inescapable outcome. The feelings run as high as ever, and Bernstein’s music is as tender and majestic as always.
Thankfully, West Side Story endures.
Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)
West Side Story (PG-13) opens Dec. 10 at theaters nationwide.