Premiering days after the death of Stephen Sondheim, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the beloved musical West Side Story feels like a timely and fitting tribute to the legendary Broadway master who wrote the lyrics to the original 1961 production. Adapted by Tony Kushner (Munich, Lincoln) from Arthur Laurents’s 1961 stage play, this new incarnation stars The Goldfinch star Ansel Elgort, newcomer Rachel Zegler and another Oscar worthy turn courtesy of Broadway doyenne Rita Moreno who also starred in the original production.
This modern twist on the Shakespearian tragedy of Romeo and Juliet requires very little introduction. The story revolves around two sets of street gangs battling out on the streets of the Upper West Side in New York City in the 1950s. The Jets, a white gang led by Riff (Mike Faist, brilliant), fight with the Sharks, a group of Puerto Ricans immigrants led by Bernardo (David Alvarez) over who the streets truly belong to.
Things take a tragic turn when Tony (Elgort), a former member of the Jets falls head over heals with Maria (Zegler), Bernardo’s younger sister. As the lovers decide to keep their relationship a secret, a late night brawl between the rival gangs culminates in the untimely death of two gang members. Meanwhile, Rita Moreno, is the wise Puerto Rican grocery shop owner married to a white man, who tries her best to spread peace between the warring factions.
Spielberg has well and truly knocked it out of the park with this ingenious and gorgeously performed musical. Adding a few modern twits to this classic loved story, he has given us a visually stunning production which more than does justice to Leonard Bernstein’s timeless numbers and Jerome Robbins’s arresting choreography.
Props have to be given to whoever had the genuinely brilliant idea of forgoing the English subtitles to the Spanish dialogue which makes up almost half of the film, proving once again that Spielberg is always ahead of the curve and with his finger firmly on the pulse of changing socio-political perceptions.
This is an adaptation that knows its place in he world and exactly what is expected from it. Although the numbers are unmistakably familiar, Spielberg’s film has an unflinchingly multiculturally sensitive tone. Furthermore, the legendary writer/director should be commended for injecting a fair bit of realism with an inspired cast.
Elgort gives a robust performance as the soft spoken Tony while Zegler puts in truly impressive debut as Maria. It is however Mike Faist as Riff who impresses the most with a stunning and accomplished performance in a role he has well and truly made his own. Elsewhere, Hamilton star Ariana DeBose puts in a career best turn as Anita, a role for which Moreno won an Oscar.
It may have taken Spielberg and his production team nine whole years to get this project off the ground, but it’s fair to say that it was more than worth the wait. This is a vividly shot, handsomely acted and more importantly a genuinely inclusive production. Simply stunning.