WEST SIDE STORY – A Review by Cynthia Flores
2021 has been a year filled with music. From documentaries about obscure well-known musicians such as The Sparks Brothers to musicals that range from the overwrought Dear Even Hansen to the surprisingly good directorial feature musical film debut from Broadway’s wonderboy, Lin-Manuel Miranda called Tick, Tick, BOOM! Lots of musicals for us fans of the genre to consume.
Which is fine for somebody like me, a confessed theater nerd, who grew up watching Stephen Sondheim classics like Company, Sunday in the Park with George, and West Side Story. Being a super fan of that last classic film made in 1961 (I know all the words to all the songs) I was offended at the news release that Steven Spielberg dared to remake such a beloved movie. I know that the original film, though award-winning and a huge hit at the box office, had issues about the casting of its female lead. A very pale Natalie Wood in dark makeup lip-synced to the singing of Marni Nixon as the Latina lead Maria. That being said, the film did however give us the stunning Puerto Rican phenomenon Rita Moreno as Valentina. Making her the first Latina to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She is still alive and working in television and film at the age of 89. She not only has a supporting role in this new version of the film but she is also listed as an Executive Producer for it too.
Needless to say, I went into the screening of Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story with a huge chip on my shoulder. I expected him to make massive changes to the story and do something gimmicky like setting it in current times or something crazy like that. Thankfully, he treated the material with the reverence it deserves. The three main changes he made were first, casting culturally appropriate performers for the roles and having them sing the songs themselves. Second, setting the neighborhood of this story on the location that Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was being built. And lastly, changing the character of “Doc” who runs the pharmacy/store in the neighborhood where the kids hang out into a female character. Now Valentina (Rita Moreno) who was married to Doc runs the place as his widow. She, a Puerto Rican woman married to a white man, knew firsthand the trouble that could create at that time.
For those of you that do not know the plot of the original 1957 Broadway musical written by Pulitzer-prizewinning playwright Tony Kushner, here is a brief overview. It’s a take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers. In West Side Story the plot is set in the mid-1950s in the Upper West Side of New York City. Back when it was a blue-collar neighborhood and not a ritzy Burrough. There’s a rivalry between two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The Jets are led by Riff (Mike Faist) who comes from a Polish background. And the Sharks are led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) who emigrated from Puerto Rico. Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former member of the Jets and best friends with Riff, is trying to go straight after his stint in jail. At a dance where both gangs are meeting, he falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo’s little sister. The two try to stop the rumble that is planned because Tony and Maria want to be together. Tragedy ensues through extended dance scenes and searing unforgettable songs.
The cast of this West Side Story is wonderful. The only star that is known other than Rita Moreno is Ansel Elgort. I knew he could act but not that he had such a great singing voice. His portrayal of Tony is earnest and heartbreaking. This is the film debut for Rachel Zegler who brings the pretty and petite Maria to life for this film. I’m sure this won’t be the last we will be seeing of this talented young woman.
I was so impressed at how the film’s choreographer Justin Peck handled the then-groundbreaking and distinctive choreography of Jerome Robbins for this version. With Spielberg’s choice of camera movement for the film, and the lush images of his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the film is stunning at times. They highlighted the brilliance and emotion in the dancing of the original Broadway production that made the first West Side Story movie such a hit.
I left our screening for this musical totally hooked on this new West Side Story. It’s so good that you don’t even feel the two hours and thirty-six-minute running time. I am even willing to publicly say that Steven Spielberg’s version is even better than the original.
I give West Side Story a 5-star rating. It pays homage to the original without just being a carbon copy of it. It’s an instant classic sure to be on awards and best-of lists for 2021. I hope you get to see it this Christmas in theaters and on the big screen to enjoy this film in all its dancing and singing glory.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner (Screenplay) Arthur Laurents
Selig Rating: 5 Stars
Running Time: 2h 36min
Drama / Musical
Wide Theatrical Release: December 10th
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Mike Faist, Josh Andres Rivera
The Selig Rating Scale:
5 Stars – Excellent movie, well worth the price.
4 Stars – Good movie
3 Stars – OK movie
2 Stars – No need to rush. Save it for a rainy day.
1 Star – Good that I saw it on the big screen but wish I hadn’t paid for it.