West Side Story

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Rachel Zegler in West Side Story.
Rachel Zegler in West Side Story.
Photo: 20th Century Studios


West Side Story


Sunday, 13 November at 21:30 on M-Net (DStv 101)


5/5 Stars


Love at first sight strikes when young Tony spots Maria at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks - two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.


West Side Story has always been ahead of its time, tackling sensitive racial and immigration issues framed within a doomed love story. Sixty years since the cinematic version debuted, America and the world are still grappling with these same problems, perhaps even the most polarised it's ever been. The ageless musical's rebirth couldn't come at a better time - and it has drunk generously from the fountains of youth.

Once again, we are transported to the crumbling New York streets of the Jets and the Sharks, their hatred for each other borne from intolerance and prejudice as both are slowly being crushed by gentrification. Expansive and beautiful sets steeped in the spirit of the theatre makes this stage almost otherworldly, a dreamscape where wishes could come true if only the characters were brave enough to make them happen.

While this is Steven Spielberg's first foray into the world of musical theatre, he has always had high regard for the importance of music in his films. So many of his most iconic movies can be remembered by their iconic scores, and he's no stranger to switching up genres. In West Side Story, his talent for worldbuilding comes to the fore, and his inexperience with musicals means he's not shackled by its conventions, making for truly inspirational changes to its theatrical machinations. The power of cinema shines through it, infusing it with modernity that's more respectful to the immigrant experience. He refused to subtitle the Spanish scenes, and while it may throw you off the first time it happens, nothing significant is lost in translation through the power of emotional language.

This is coupled with performances that ooze with the youthful spirit. This is West Side Story for the young, enticing new fans into its fold while paying homage to what came before through Rita Morena as a replacement character for Doc. Part of this liveliness was thanks to Rachel Zegler, making her fresh-faced debut on the big screen as Maria. Bright, hopeful and powered by enigmatic energy perfectly captured by Spielberg, she stands out as much in the film as she did when she auditioned with 30 000 people for the role. Her voice matches her persona, and Zegler complements every other actor she has a scene with, especially the raw talent that is Ariana DeBose as Anita. Part of the original Hamilton cast, DeBose is as pivotal to the film as Morena was from the 1961 version, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone to match her excellence.

Another fantastic portrayal was delivered by theatre darling Mike Faist, Tony-nominated at a young age for his work in Dear Evan Hansen. He takes on the role of Riff, leader of the Jets and best friend to Maria's Tony. Faist was the most memorable of all, his dancing and singing skills dominating every scene with his commanding presence. I almost wish he rather played Tony instead of Ansel Elgort, the only one who felt a little clumsy in his portrayal of a reformed troublemaker and lovesick youth. His performance wasn't exactly bad - it was rather good when it was just acting - but mainly he was carried through by the rest of the cast, and you only cared about him because others like Maria and Valentina cared about him. Even Zegler ran circles around him, proving to be the one actor that would have been easily replaceable.

Luckily, this doesn't make much of an impact on your experience of West Side Story. Despite being a huge musical fan, it was always my least favourite - yet Spielberg proved to me why it's so beloved by many. His changes to the story, characters and settings only improved its existing narrative, and in my opinion, made it better than it ever was. It's a master class in adapting older material for new audiences while incorporating a more sensitive touch to complex issues, and I foresee many awards for its future.


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