CHICAGO - Remaking an iconic Hollywood classic is a steep proposition. Restaging a new version of a popular stage show is slightly less daunting.
For his new take on "West Side Story," director Steven Spielberg sort of splits the difference — he pulls from the beloved 1961 movie musical as well as the original Broadway stage show, while adding a few new elements of his own. This is "West Side" as you’ve seen it before, and also as you haven’t.
The result is an earnestly old-fashioned movie musical that dazzles in so many ways. The choreography is truly breathtaking and it’s worth heading to a theater just to hear Leonard Bernstein’s soaring score played by a full orchestra in surround sound.
Yet for all its compelling pieces — including some of the best supporting performances of the year and a welcome deepening of the show’s Puerto Rican characters — it’s an adaptation that never fully springs to life, at least not compared to the very best versions of "West Side Story."
About "West Side Story": A musical melodrama classic
The biggest problem is that the love story at its center just doesn’t work, which is quite the hurdle for a musical that transports the "Romeo and Juliet" template to 1950s New York.
The magic of "West Side Story" hinges on the love-at-first sight connection between Polish-American former gang leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and recent Puerto Rican immigrant Maria (Rachel Zegler). And while Zegler makes for a refreshingly self-possessed ingenue in her star-is-born debut film role, Elgort doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain.
Though his singing is solid (at least until Zegler’s Broadway-ready pipes put him to shame), he has absolutely no ability to act while singing, which is a cardinal sin for a musical.
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To be fair, Spielberg doesn’t always aid the central romance with his staging choices. In the 1961 version, for instance, Tony and Maria’s first meeting at a community dance is a full-on fantasy sequence, in which the rest of the world melts away and the duo move in sync as a metaphorical representation of their two hearts becoming one.
Here, however, Spielberg stages that moment as a more realistic meet-cute where Tony and Maria sneak behind the bleachers for a private dance. Though incredibly charming in its own right (it’s Elgort and Zegler’s best moment together), the scene grounds their connection in such a sweet, awkward rom-com realism that when they’re suddenly talking about their undying love a few scenes later, it feels unearned rather than poetic.
See "West Side Story" for: the music, the dancing and some standout performances
Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Which isn’t to say that none of the adaptation choices work. Intriguingly enough, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decide to turn this Shakespeare-inspired drama into more of an epic, primal Greek tragedy; complete with larger-than-life settings and exaggerated chiaroscuro lighting.
In this version of "West Side Story," the deaths feel less like pointless misfortunes than grim inevitabilities.
It’s an idea filtered best through Tony’s friend Riff (Mike Faist), who’s reimagined from funny, charismatic street gang leader to squirrely, raw-nerve delinquent with a death wish. Here the song "Cool" — usually a bit of a narrative dead-end — becomes an enthralling confrontation between Tony and Riff; two blood brothers torn apart by the question of whether they still have hope for the future.
It’s one of the many places in which Justin Peck’s choreography (loosely inspired by Jerome Robbins’ iconic original work) absolutely shines. "West Side Story" has always been as much a dance show as a traditional book musical and Spielberg keeps that element joyfully, acrobatically intact.
As Maria’s brother Bernado, ballet-trained David Alvarez leaps so high it almost looks like a special effect. And "I Feel Pretty," "Gee, Officer Krupke," "America" and the "Tonight" balcony scene are just a few of the numbers that find new life in a living, breathing New York City full of quirky architecture for the performers to interact with.
Yet there seems to be an ongoing divide between the heightened theatricality Spielberg wants to bring to the material (a good chunk of the movie unfolds on an abstracted construction site that feels like the set for a stage production of "Cats") and the more grounded, talk-y drama that Kushner is interested in exploring.
Particularly when it comes to a clunky new tortured backstory for Tony, the book scenes and songs interrupt one another, rather than fueling each other. And that leads to pacing issues too, as the dialogue-only scenes stretch on for so long that by the time the songs arrive, they seem to pass too quickly.
"West Side Story": A Tale of Two Anitas
Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.
Still, there’s more about "West Side Story" that works than doesn’t — even if those elements often feel more like individual instruments than a full orchestra playing in harmony.
It’s a credit to how much this adaptation is interested in deepening its Puerto Rican characters that Maria’s milquetoast would-be boyfriend Chino outshines her Tony, largely thanks to Josh Andrés Rivera’s wonderfully endearing, lived-in performance.
But it’s the Anitas who truly steal the show; both Rita Moreno (the original Anita in the 1961 film) in a reimagined role as Tony’s empathetic boss, and especially Ariana DeBose as the tough but tender seamstress herself. A triple threat of the highest degree, DeBose emerges as the soul of the film — the performer who best embodies everything Spielberg and Kushner are trying to do with this grim, gritty, but still joyful adaptation.
DeBose dances across the full spectrum of human emotion as gracefully as she literally dances down the streets of New York, bringing out the best in her scene partners along the way. It’s one of the performances of the year. And like the best elements of "West Side Story," it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
In theaters Dec. 10. Rated PG-13. 156 minutes. Dir: Steven Spielberg. Featuring: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she lovingly dissects the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her ongoing column When Romance Met Comedy at The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
Mambo! These classic musicals are streaming (for free) on Tubi
Gypsy (2015): Like "West Side Story", "Gypsy" also features a book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Working with composer Jule Styne, the trio tell the story of Mama Rose, the ultimate show business mother. And this 2015 production filmed live at London’s Savoy Theatre lets Oscar-nominee Imelda Staunton ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") chew the scenery with the best of them. TV-PG. 142 minutes. Dir: Lonny Price. Also features Peter Davison.
Guys and Dolls (1955): For a classic musical that’s just a touch lighter than "West Side Story," there’s this beloved tale of gamblers, nightclub singers, and missionaries. With one of the catchiest Broadway scores ever written (including "Luck Be A Lady," "If I Were A Bell," and the upbeat title number), even this uneven movie adaptation is a tuneful joy to watch. TV-PG. 159 minutes. Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Featuring:Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine, Jean Simmons and Stubby Kaye.
Sweet Charity (1969): The legendary Bob Fosse made his feature directorial debut with this adaptation of the Broadway musical he had previously directed and choreographed onstage. Shirley MacLaine stars as a struggling taxi dancer with a heart of gold. She’s a veritable "Brass Band" and, best of all, you don’t have to be a "Big Spender" to watch. Rated G. 148 minutes. Dir: Bob Fosse. Also features Sammy Davis Jr., John McMartin, Ricardo Montalban, Chita Rivera, and Ben Vereen.
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