• 01 Jan - 07 Jan, 2022
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Do we really need a remake of West Side Story? Having won 10 Oscars (a record for a musical), including best picture, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s 1961 screen incarnation of the 1957 Broadway musical hit remains a much-loved and much-watched “classic”; a self-consciously streetwise affair with weapons-grade earworm tunes and choreography that kids would try to mimic in school playgrounds for decades. Yet even the most ardent fan of the original would have to admit that time has not been kind to the sight of Natalie Wood playing a Latina. Hooray, then, for screen newcomer Rachel Zegler, who landed the lead role of Maria from an open casting call, and whose vibrantly natural performance almost singlehandedly justifies this “reimagining” from director Steven Spielberg.

Ansel Elgort is Tony, a one-time troublemaker now attempting to put his past behind him. When Tony falls for Maria at a dance designed to bring harmony between warring clans (a “social experiment”), he incurs the wrath of friends and foes alike. With a once-and-for-all rumble on the cards, into which gang leader Riff (Mike Faist) seems determined to drag his old friend, the scene is set for cross-cultural tragedy of love and death.

Where Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s version comes into its own is in the moments where it dares to find its own distinct voice – nowhere more so than in placing Somewhere in the hands of Rita Moreno. Having played Anita in the 1961 film, a role thrillingly filled here by Ariana DeBose, Moreno, who also gets an exec-producer credit, comes to embody the heart and soul of this new production. As Valentina, widowed owner of Doc’s Drugstore, Moreno provides the genetic link between the past and the present, lending a sense of gravitas to scenes that might otherwise have teetered into parody. For us, her low-key rendition of the song is up there with the opening track of Tom Waits’s 1978 album Blue Valentine, rich in fragile, heartbreaking pathos.

Other smart moves include casting the non-binary actor Iris Menas as Anybodys, a performance that has something of the oomph of Linda Manz’s brilliant turn in The Wanderers, repaying the inspirational debt that Philip Kaufman’s 1979 cult classic owed to the Wise/Robbins West Side Story, bringing everything full circle.