Note: Spoilers! Avoid this review if you haven’t seen the film, just to be on the safe side.
While my heart is still with the original 1961 film (are we surprised?), I found there is much to enjoy in West Side Story (2021). For one, the score is as sumptuous as ever, as are nods to the original choreography as well as a bold, strategic color palette.
Among the standout performances in this film are Rachel Zegler in the role of Maria, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rita Moreno as Valentina. In my opinion, Zegler brings about an innocence and vulnerability to the role of Maria that I feel Natalie Wood did not. Her voice–her own voice–is also lovely, fully expressing and exuding the spirit of the character. Faist, though no Russ Tamblyn in gymnastics, is exceptional in his role. Age-appropriate, bold, brash, and highly athletic, Faist brings a Broadway-quality panache to this iteration of Riff. Moreno returns to West Side Story this time as an original character–Doc’s widow–while casting a watchful eye over her former Anita character from the original film.
True to form, the music in this film is still remarkable. Fans of the original film and Broadway productions will note some of the key choreography–particularly Tony and Maria’s fantastic encounter, snaps and all. To me, the most notable songs in this version are “One Hand, One Heart”–one that I don’t particularly care for in the original–and the tried and true 11 o’clock number “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Moreno’s rendition of “Somewhere” is also quite powerful, and frankly, the only time I cried during this film. Interestingly, Tony’s “Something’s Coming” is not a scene featuring him on his own. Though still a soliloquy, Tony (played by Ansel Elgort) muses through this number while dancing Valentina about the shop at times.
The use of color is also striking. The Sharks dress in warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows) and the Jets are in cool colors (greens, blues, purples). This stays consistent throughout until our star-crossed lovers begin to mingle. Maria’s iconic white dress–with a red belt–crosses over to this film. However, soon enough, she begins wearing blues and Tony even has some reds appear. The “One Hand, One Heart” sequence has the duo singing in front of a stained glass window, casting intermingled red and blue patterns on the floor around them. As the film progresses, red and blue lights shine through Maria’s bedroom window. Anita’s bedspread is red, while Maria suddenly has blue articles of clothing atop of it. Valentina, a character who has connections to both sides of this divide, wears purples–cleverly, of course, a combination of red and blue.
Need some bonus colors? Be sure to keep an eye out for the fabrics hanging in the dress shop while Anita is sewing. They’re a direct homage to Wood’s costume during the “I Feel Pretty” sequence in the original film.
In terms of the weaker points, I found Elgort’s Tony to be rather dry. While he did have some moments in his acting that were good, other actors were certainly stronger in this regard. Moreover, some of the showstopping numbers from the original film were not executed as well in this version. “America” and “Maria” had some exceptional cinematographic moments, but the songs themselves were nowhere near as strong as in the original. I do want to mention, however, that the gold standard for the West Side Story songs overall remains the original Broadway cast recording, in my opinion.
Though the box office reports have not been great for this film (and, realistically, neither has COVID), I think that this film is well worth seeing. It has its differences but still offers a fine escape into a beautiful score.
Community Theatres have no problem filling the orchestra pit when they produce West Side Story. Musicians long to play Bernstein, and who can blame them?