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‘West Side Story’: In Spielberg’s hands, the classic musical feels wonderful, witty and bright

The reboot pulsates with life, thanks to the director’s artistry and a sensational cast led by Rachel Zegler in a starmaking feature debut as Maria.

Maria (Rachel Zegler) defies her brother and falls for his gang rival in “West Side Story.”
20th Century Studios

When Steven Spielberg was filming “Jaws” in 1974 (for a 1975 release), we were just 13 years past the release of the iconic and acclaimed blockbuster “West Side Story.” Flash forward nearly a half-century, and the young man who overcame all those problems with Bruce the mechanical shark back in the 1970s to kick off his feature film career has achieved unquestioned status as one of the greatest and most successful directors in the history of cinema — and at the age of 74, Spielberg has pulled off a magnificent feat in delivering one of the greatest reboots of all time.

Soaring. Exhilarating. Magical. Heartbreaking. Unforgettable.

Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remains faithful to the 1957 Broadway musical source material (which, of course, was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”) and is still firmly rooted in the New York City of the 1950s — but also manages to come across as fresh and timely, thanks to the screenplay by the great Tony Kushner, some key tweaks to certain characters and moments and song placement, and a sensational feature film debut by Rachel Zegler, who delivers a star-making performance and makes Maria her own from the moment we see her on screen. (We’d also be remiss not mention the classic original music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim, respectively.)

The opening sequence of “West Side Story” sets the tempo for some obvious modern-day parallels, when finger-snapping Caucasian toughs led by Mike Faist’s volatile, born-angry Riff steal paint cans from one of the many construction sites in their gentrifying neighborhood and deface a mural of the Puerto Rican flag. (Shades of bigots whitewashing “Black Lives Matter” murals.) Of course, this being “West Side Story,” the tough-guy Jets swirl and twirl about with balletic grace — as do their rivals, the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, led by the formidable Bernardo (David Alvarez), a professional boxer who has the smarts and the natural ability to rise above these streets and truly make something of himself, if only he can see past this day, this fight, these petty and violent squabbles.

As the casually racist Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll) explains to these sons of the Irish, Italian and Polish and these sons of Puerto Rico, both groups are about to rendered extinct by the wrecking ball in this rapidly transitioning neighborhood, and there’s nothing they can do about it. And yet neither side can get past their fear-based resentment and hostility toward one another.

With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s camera swooping about in spectacular fashion and the production design by Adam Stockhausen perfectly capturing the 1957 vibe while also carrying an almost dreamlike quality at times, “West Side Story” effortlessly introduces (or should we say re-introduces) the familiar characters, including Zegler’s Maria, who is bursting with energy and life and optimism; Ansel Elgort’s Tony, who spent a year in prison after nearly killing a rival in a fight and is trying to be a better man; Ariana DeBose’s Anita, a lovely and passionate and independent-minded woman who is Bernardo’s girlfriend and an older-sister figure to Maria, and the seemingly bookish Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), who has been tabbed by Bernardo to be the right kind of suitor for Maria.

Two of the screen-commanding performances come from Ariana DeBose (left) as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo.
20th Century Studios

Ah, but Maria has a mind and a heart of her own, as she’s constantly reminding her brother. And when Tony and Maria lock eyes across the dance floor while the Sharks and Jets make plans for one last epic rumble, let’s just say for this particular star-crossed couple the night is suddenly full of light. We know Elgort is movie-star handsome and he does a solid job of singing and dancing — but even when he’s not in the shadows, it still seems like he’s in the shadows alongside the radiant Zegler. (For that matter, Faist as Riff, Alvarez as Bernardo and DeBose as Anita all give such star-powered, screen-commanding performances, Elgort seems like a supporting player even though he’s a lead. It’s not that he isn’t serviceable; he’s just not in their same collective magnetic league.)

“West Side Story” 2021 features a pair of inspired upgrades to supporting characters. The legendary Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the 1961 film) lends the film its conscience as Valentina, the widow of the drugstore owner Doc, whose long and beautiful interracial marriage gives hope to Tony that he and Maria can make it. Moreno turns in a memorable, grounded, deeply moving performance. And then there’s Anybodys (Iris Menas) who was what they called a “tomboy” back in the day but is a non-binary character in the 21st century version. Neither of these casting choices seems gimmicky; they’re just better ways to tell the tale.

Rita Moreno of the 1961 “West Side Story” gives a deeply moving performance as the widow Valentina.
20th Century Studios

The famous Spielbergian magic lighting is put to great use here, e.g., when Tony takes Maria uptown to The Met Cloisters and they essentially exchange lifetime vows to the tune of “One Hand, One Heart,” in a beautifully spiritual setting. On numerous other occasions, the location shots (and elaborate soundstage set pieces) pulsate with life, as well-choreographed extras back out of the way or look on in amazement during numbers such as the still-infectious “America.” In a career filled with brilliant achievements, Steven Spielberg has injected new life, new blood, new energy, new artistry, into a classic.