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  • Jonathan Kalb

West Side Banana

Ivo van Hove’s retooled version of West Side Story opened a little more than two weeks ago and has already triggered such a gale of buzz, gossip, criticism and debate that the veritable storm of opinions is as interesting as any single opinion in itself. The list of reviews for this show is about twice as long as for any other on Broadway, and it doesn’t include feature and preview articles.

I usually wait until after I’ve seen a play to read about it but in this case I felt so soaked with the discussion already that I gave in and decided to try absorbing it. As I took my seat the night before last, the pans and raves were sloshing around my brain, competing for synapse-space with all my vivid memories of seeing the show twice before on Broadway (once directed by Jerome Robbins, once by Arthur Laurents), seeing the film at least half a dozen times, and playing Chino in high school (dejectedly because the girl I loved starred as Maria; Chino, for the 1% who don’t know, was the killer of Tony and Maria’s forced match.)

I’m delighted to report that all this distraction left my head after about 10 or 15 minutes. The show may have its weak spots—all well described by many critics. But from “The Dance at the Gym” on I let them go and succumbed to the powerful spell and breathtaking sweep of the thing. This West Side Story has passages of tremendous beauty entirely distinct from those in past productions, and a few standout performances. To damn or praise it unequivocally seems to me to distort what’s really there.

Anyone who’s been following Van Hove over the years—and his 10 previous U.S. productions date back to 1996—knows basically what to expect by now. He uses video unsparingly and typically reimagines classic American dramas by discarding their familiar settings and retrofitting their characters with expressly contemporary behavior. He’s no stickler for interpretive detail. He doesn’t care, for instance, if the price of one transcendently revamped scene is that two others go limp or incoherent. To like him is to believe the gains outweigh the losses, so no one had any reason to expect uniform perfection in this West Side Story.

What the show has provided is a must-see, must-discuss spectacle: the encounter of a famously naughty Belgian who likes to break things with a beloved American chestnut that’s been heretofore left more or less intact. It’s a worthwhile experiment—overdue by some measures, since five essentially straight Broadway productions preceded this experimental one—which dares us to interpret its outcome in different ways.

The resulting public conversation is the show’s signal glory. Like the banana the artist Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped to a wall at Art Basel last fall (and sold for $120,000), Van Hove’s West Side Story has sparked an extraordinary discussion that wouldn’t have happened without it. Regardless what you think of the show, conversation is always healthy. Criticism, as we all know, is a degraded and endangered phenomenon. (That’s the main reason I do my TheaterMatters panels.) Yet here is a roomy raft of smart voices responding to the buzz of an art event by weighing in intelligently on a host of vital and important questions.

For an eloquent discussion of the show’s “decolonizing” ambition, its use of diverse casting and location video to “scramble our racial signals” and blur the distinction between the Sharks and Jets, read David Cote’s essay in 4 Columns.

For an acute take on the controversy surrounding the casting of the expelled-then-reinstated NYC Ballet dancer Amar Ramasar as Bernardo, read Helen Shaw in Vulture.

For a cutting and passionate pan of the production’s oversized video, read Ben Brantley in the New York Times. And for an equally passionate celebration of the same thing, read Robert Hofler in The Wrap.

I had thought full-dress, long-form essays on contemporary theater had vanished forever from the few intellectual monthlies that survive in America. I thought wrong. Check out Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s outstanding piece in The Atlantic examining the sublimated queerness behind West Side Story’s use of ethnic stereotypes.

This sort of discursive beehive, now rare, was once common in our theater. Its reappearance is a cause for celebration.

West Side Story photos: Adam Rodriguez/Jan Versweyveld

Cattalan photo: Rhona Wise/EPA-EFE

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by Ivo Van Hove

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