Video killed the Broadway star

In which I beg Ivo van Hove to do less.

I have seen West Side Story. I have thoughts about West Side Story.

My thoughts are, yes, largely on the negative side, although there were elements of this production I loved deeply, which is actually more annoying than when I just hate something. Instead of writing off an entire show as a disaster, I’m left frustrated by the fact that a director can’t get out of his own way. Rather than allow the more effective aspects of West Side Story to speak for themselves, he insists on the endless distraction of a giant-ass screen. I’m not here to trash the use of projections in the theater. I’m simply saying that if Ivo van Hove wants to make a music video so badly, perhaps he should do that.

When I say there were things I loved about this West Side Story, I mean that. I’m mostly referring to Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, who are delivering fantastic performances that somehow rise above the noise of this production. The cast as a whole — with, uh, one notable exception — is pretty extraordinary. The dancing is gorgeous. Some of the video elements actually do work, like the stunning shots from above. And at the end of the day, it’s still West Side Story, which means of course I fucking cried during “Somewhere,” are you kidding me. (The added touch of having some of the pairs be queer just made me cry harder.)

But the screen. My god, the screen. I used to be a budding Ivo stan, particularly after I saw and loved his A View From the Bridge. (Sparse, homoerotic, raining blood. What’s not to love!) Then I saw Network and became resentful that the one experimental director Broadway seems ready to wholeheartedly embrace is a man who appears to me to be weirdly disdainful of theater. The fact that there were multiple scenes in Network that you couldn’t see onstage, that so much of it relied on camera tricks, that the entire enterprise felt pointless because we already have a pretty flawless version of Network on film — with all due respect to Bryan Cranston, but if I wanted to watch the 1976 movie Network, I would have watched the 1976 movie Network! I mean, come on now.

This isn’t about Network, but it is, in the sense that West Side Story feels similarly resigned to keeping audience eyes on the screen instead of on the stage. There are times when I believe projections can help a show immensely. (I recently saw The Headlands at Lincoln Center. Lots of projections there, and I thought it was wonderful. You should go see it!) But West Side Story’s screen just drags everything down. At times it feels like you’re watching Ivo van Hove’s film adaptation of West Side Story being shadowcast. And that’s not why I go to the theater! I don’t mind having video integrated, but when that’s the focal point, it becomes an obnoxious intrusion. What are we even doing here?

It also comes across as a crutch, particularly given that so much of the director’s perspective here seems muddled, to say the least. I’m not sure what this West Side Story is trying to say, and I’m not convinced that Ivo is either. The nadir of the production comes when he stages a “Gee, Officer Krupke” that’s designed as an indictment of racist police violence and the ways innocent people fall victim to a corrupt system — then follows it up with a scene in which the Jets rape Anita. Are these misunderstood young men, or remorseless sexual predators? The whiplash of these scenes feels incoherent at best, and deeply offensive at worst.

And yet! And yet, there is something there, brief glimmers of what might have been if Powell and Pimentel were starring in a production less weighed down by its own bullshit. In many ways, I think it’s still worth seeing, if only for his “Maria” and the “Tonight” they duet together. Also, yes, “Somewhere,” which I’m getting a little teary thinking about, because I’m soft as hell. Listen I’m excited by the idea of directors continuing to probe the material and mess with the classics — I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I was kind of into the Oklahoma! That Fucked. I don’t mind if I don’t always get it, especially when it exposes new audiences to the work, and elevates up-and-coming talent. But let’s give another director a shot next time.

Photo via Jan Versweyveld.