When West Side Story hit theaters in 1961, racial tensions in New York City was at an all time high and its subject matter resonated like no other film had done. It went on to win 10 out of 11 Academy Awards and one of those taking home the coveted award was a young, idyllic, Puerto Rican actress name Rita Moreno, who not only stars in this reimagined version, but serves as one of its executive producers. Maria, Tony, Anita and Bernardo are classic characters inhabiting a world of racial injustice, forbidden love (interracial relationships were still deemed illegal in some states), gang life, exquisite and memorable dance numbers from now legendary Jerome Robbins with a score from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim now ingrained with musical theatre history.
Now, in 2021, Steven Spielberg has boldly taken on director, Tony Kushner reimagined the script and a brand new cast of Hollywood hopefuls who have jumped into the iconic roles of Jets and Sharks. How does it hold up? Well, let me start with what I did like. I loved ALL of the women. A year ago, Rachel Zegler was playing Princess Fiona in her high school production of “Shrek” and now makes her feature film debut as Maria. Zegler has a face, voice and aura that was born to be a movie star and is simply perfect. Right on her heels is Ariana Dubose. Dubose, who starred in the film version of Broadway hit musical “The Prom” and tapped her buns off for Apple TV Plus’ campy and captivating series “Schmigadoon” was just warming up for the role of Anita. A role that will surely make her as iconic as her predecessor for a whole new generation. Which brings me to Miss Moreno. It is no coincidence that Rita Moreno is one of 16 artists who possesses an Emmy, Grammy Oscar and Tony. Her turn as Doc’s widow Valentina could without a doubt witness a Supporting Oscar win nearly 60 years later. Moreno is luminescent as she whispers a highly emotional version of “Somewhere” and is guaranteed to place every single audience member in the ugly cry, so make sure you have plenty of tissue on hand. That moment alone is worth the price of admission. Mike Faist’s Riff is a spectacular standout of a youthful, angst ridden, troubled teen bubbling with angst underneath the surface making one a little on edge as to what his next move will or won’t be. Janusz Kaminski’s choreography is fire and conveys every bit of frustration that goes along with the territory of a racially torn Manhattan. Cindy Tolan’s casting is perfection, as are the costume and production design from Paul Tazewell and Adam Stockhausen.
Fans of this iconic musical will live for those moments they remember fondly like the gym dance, Tony and Maria singing “Tonight” on the fire escape and the duet between Anita and Maria after Bernardo’s ill-fated death. Spielberg and Kushner toy around with the classic just enough while remaining true to the original, especially since Spielberg had never dipped into the musical theatre lane of direction (although he has previously directed a few musical numbers in “The Color Purple” and “Indiana Jones Temple of Doom”). Some moments that are tinkered with are not my cup of tea, but I do appreciate the recognition of “Anybody” as a member of of the LGBTQ community. It’s not lost on me that racial tensions in this day and age are even more troublesome or that as a woman of color I often yearn to be see as human first just as Maria and Tony yearn to have their love exist in a world that didn’t place so much importance on the color of their skin or cultural background. We can’t change the package we are given to navigate this thing called life, but we can change how we respond to hate and disparity. As a whole, West Side Story purists will pick this film to death, however, the film still resonates on a visceral and emotional level because love and who one decides to love is universal and will entertain despite clocking in at almost three hours. As another part of Stephen Sondheim’s legacy opens on Broadway with “Company”, he can be assured this chapter of his legacy rests in capable hands.