Photo courtesy of El Capitan Theatre
El Capitan Theatre
I do not usually review movies. For that matter, I don’t usually go to movies. The thing is, films are stored in a can on a metal shelf in some temperature-controlled cabinet; if a story is not being presented live, I have a tendency to lose interest in about 15 minutes. And yes, Virginia, I do mean all movies. My loss, I know.
The perfect exception to that rule is Steven Spielberg’s massive remake of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical West Side Story, which debuted on Broadway a mere 64 years ago and was first made into an exceptionally reverent feature film in 1961, winner of 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. My personal history also includes a summer stock turn in West Side at age 17 playing Riff opposite the late-great Dorothy Dandridge as our Anita—that is, sadly, when she was sober enough to go on.
The new West Side quickly overcame my unusual disinterest in film, however, especially with a brand new screenplay by Tony Kushner and featuring LA Phil’s Gustavo Dudamel conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, with arrangements by David Newman and vocal coaching from Jeanine Tesori.
I mean... really.
Spielberg’s reworking of the classic, filmed by our time’s most dazzlingly gifted director of photography Janusz Kaminski, might just become known as the best motion picture version of a Broadway musical since the dawn of the millennium, just as Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ original film was the best film musical of the first century of filmmaking.
Add to that the film is not scheduled to go into worldwide release for another 7 days, yet it’s opening for us lucky Angelenos on December 10 for a limited run through January 2 at that historic 1926 moviehouse the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, complete with the leading actors’ original “Dance at the Gym” costuming on display in the lobby and a Broadway showtune concert presented before the movie begins played by Rob Richards as the venue’s famous Mighty Wurlitzer appears from below the stage. It’s an experience that could not be a better way to celebrate the holidays in our cautiously reopening country.
The film must be seen on a big screen and with the kind of state-of-the-art El Capitan sound system where the Jets’ whistles that begin Bernstein’s “Prologue” in the darkened theatre originate from different corners of the house, a phenomenon that also includes dogs barking from behind as Tony climbs the clanking fire escape to Maria’s “balcony.”
Kaminski’s cinematography is staggeringly brilliant when viewed on this level, sometimes bright and colorful, sometimes gritty and dark and dusty when his camera sweeps past a crumbling piece of concrete rubble as the characters’ doomed upper-west side San Juan Hill ‘hood is being demolished to build Lincoln Center.
As is often in the case in any Spielberg project, all of the Jets and Sharks and most of the other castmembers are unknown, all but a few complete newcomers to the world of film. The startlingly talented 20-year-old Rachel Zegler is a true find as Maria, one of 30,000 candidates from around the world submitted on video after the director put out a worldwide call for undiscovered talent and viewed her performance on tape singing in a high school production of Shrek the Musical.
David Alvarez, who left the business for the Army after being one of the three teenagers to share a Tony for the title role in Billy Elliott, had to be found to audition and is also exceptional as Maria’s brother Bernardo, while Mike Faist from the original cast of Newsies and a Tony nominee for Dear Evan Hansen is the quintessential Riff. As a former Riff myself I may have been less than objective here as I mouthed all of his lyrics behind my ever-present mask, but to me Faist’s performance stood out far more than the early reviews seem to be acknowledging.
Ariana DeBose, discovered on Broadway in Hamilton and who appeared in a leading role in filmed version of The Prom on Netflix, is sure to be featured soon for award consideration as Anita, the role which won Rita Moreno an Oscar in 1961. And of course, Moreno herself could be her competitor when this year’s nominations are announced, appearing in the remake at age 89 as Valentina, the local merchant who in past versions is a kindly old Jewish storeowner named Doc.
Valentina has been reinvented here as Doc's widow, a world-weary survivor of an early mixed marriage who has seen it all and understands predudice firsthand only too well. Kushner's screenplay delivers an especially poignant moment as Valentina sits at her modest kitchen table and sings a delicate a capella version of “Somewhere,” West Side's loveliest and most haunting ballad.
At one point, the camera scans the room and briefly lands on an old photo of a smiling young Valentina and her Doc, the photoshopped image showimg Moreno during her fiery Anita days and possibly Ned Glass, the original Doc, with his arm protectively around her shoulder. It’s not hard to envision how challenging life must have been for the immigrant Jew and his Puerto Rican bride.
Moreno's perceived transformation from the strong and independent Anita to the fragile elder Valentina is not lost here, elevating Spielberg’s film to astronomical heights—and wouldn’t it be historic if one actor won two Academy Awards for each filmed version of the same play 60 years apart?
Veteran film actor Ansel Elgort of the Divergent films who came to prominence playing in the title role in Baby Driver is the lovestruck Tony and, although his vocals are not as dynamic as his costars, I for one do not understand why so many critics have felt his performance is the film’s weakest link. His Tony is heartbreakingly real to me, a lovely, lyrical turn that I found to be one of the major highlights of the remake. And if Elgort isn’t a world-class singer, that too seems sweetly appropriate to the nature of the character.
Justin Peck, who often performed Robbins’ original West Side choreography as a member of the New York City Ballet during the era when Jerry (who I had the honor to know when he directed me over a half-century ago in Oh Dad, Poor Dad…) served as NYCB’s ballet master, clearly pays homage to the original moves yet also makes them his own.
Perhaps one of my only minor disappointments with the film was how Kasminski too often captured the dance numbers from overhead and afar which, though filmic, made me miss seeing the dancers’ moves in tighter detail. In Wise and Robbins’ film, we got to know each of the gang members and their girlfriends. Here they’re kinda-sorta just a crowd.
Although the soundtrack and Newman’s arrangement stay true to Bernstein’s intent, I also thought somehow, even with Dudamel and the NY Phil performing the familiar score, it seemed to be surprisingly unexciting and even at times disjointed from the film, sounding a little like a locally hired pit band in a small theatre dutifully following the sheet music rather than offering much passion. I’d like to think the problem rests on the shoulders of the film’s sound mixing department, not Mr. Dudamel or his musicians.
Paul Tazwell’s costuming also obviously honors Irene Sharaff's iconic 1961 Oscar-winning designs, but I did miss the Jet and Sharks’ supertight jeans that, even if a tad theatrical, nicely showed off the dancers’ prominent derrieres, something that always deserves appreciative scrutiny.
Steven Spielberg’s epic film will be around a long time—that is if there is a long time for our species the way things are currently evolving. It’s rather disheartening that the musical’s still urgently important message as heralded in Arthur Laurents’ original book has basically gone unheeded for over six decades. Our current set of world powers should all be strapped in a droogie chair Clockwork Orange-style and be forced to contemplate the kind of transforming Ebenezer Scrooge-y moment West Side Story has to offer.
THROUGH JAN. 2: El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Bl., Hollywood. www.elcapitantickets.com