Some say to leave the classics alone. Others think they should be reinvented and updated for new generations of viewers. In a media landscape full of sequels decades after the original, reboots, revivals, reboot-quels, and all the other versions of that, the announcement of a new adaptation of the beloved classic like West Side Story was initially met with mixed reactions, but don’t worry. All concerns can dissipate as this collaboration with director Stephen Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner along with a top-notch cast breathes new life into the classic musical.
One of the first actors cast after a nationwide open call was Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort as Tony, a role that could easily be portrayed as a one-note, head-over-heels optimist in love. What we get with Kushner’s script and Elgort’s performance is a morally conflicted young man who just returned to his old life after a year in prison for almost killing a rival gang member, someone who wants to start fresh and build a better life, no matter how much his best friend begs him to help with the growing ‘threat’ of the Sharks who, like Tony, are longing for a better life in the US. The addition of Rita Moreno’s Valentina gives Tony a sense of hope and acceptance while others may be turning a blind eye to his situation, and Moreno’s rendition of ‘Someday’ is a true tear-jerker.
Alongside Tony is Riff, brilliantly played by Broadway’s Mike Faist, who portrays the character with such a strong, stubborn sense of pride above all else, that he’s willing to kill to protect the Jets’ reputation. A particularly stunning performance between Elgort and Faist is ‘Cool’, feels just as much stunt coordination as it is choreographed dance. The same could easily be said for Riff and Bernardo’s ‘Rumble’ in the second half of the film.
Newcomer Rachel Zegler makes her film debut as the innocent yet strong-willed Maria, who is as independent as she is head-over-heels in love with Tony. At only eighteen years old at the time of filming, Zegler’s flawless soprano and grounded performance marks an impressive debut and a promising career ahead of her, no doubt.
Among the stellar cast are standouts Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez’s portrayals of Anita and Bernardo, respectively. The chemistry between the two is palpable and their dancing in numbers like ‘Dance at the Gym’ and ‘America’ is utterly flawless. Both portray their roles with such electric, commanding presences. Alvarez portrays Bernardo with intensity and pride, a man totally in love with Anita, protective of his little sister Maria and willing to do anything to protect those that he loves. DeBose’s Anita is warm and tender with Maria, on-fire in love with Bernardo, and unafraid in front of those who dare cross her. Their back and forth in ‘America’ is particularly entertaining to watch, as it is when the entire neighborhood joins in to dance.
Another standout is the initially meek-turned-vengeful Chino, portrayed by Josh Andés Rivera, also making his film debut, whose character is unrecognizable by the end of the film.
Certain additions in Kushner’s script keep the story fresh and modern, in a way, despite still taking place in the 1950s, from the gentrification of West Side Manhattan to build the now iconic Lincoln Center, to a much-needed commentary regarding colorism among Latinx and Hispanics in addition to the original conflict between Puerto Ricans Sharks vs Polish Jets street gangs.
With its iconic, soaring score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim, along with David Newman’s lively orchestrations for the film, the music is as brilliant as ever. West Side Story does not disappoint with its updated script, unsurprisingly brilliant direction from Spielberg, and a young star-studded cast. West Side Story opens worldwide on December 10.