The two rival gangs stand face-to-face after a dance off (Photo: Courtesy of the “West Side Story” promotional website)
by Georgia Laganiere, a&e editor
West Side Story is a classic tale about two rival gangs, the Puerto Rican gang called the Sharks versus the Polish gang called the Jets. The story is inspired by the famous Romeo and Juliet. True love, fights and tragedy are intertwined in this musical. Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story came out in December 2021, but the lead up to the release had some musical theater fans worried. Spielberg traditionally directs movies outside of the musical genre, making West Side Story a first for him. However, I think it turned out pretty great. My movie reviews operate on a 60 point scale with 10 points each for acting, soundtrack, costuming, sets/special effects, story and for my personal opinion. Warning: This review contains some mild spoilers.
The movie begins with a girl named Maria (Rachel Zegler) who lives with her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez), the leader of the Sharks, and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). In an attempt to curb the violence between the two gangs, the city throws a dance at a local high school to bring peace between the communities. There, the innocent and newly 18-year-old Maria and a recently-out-of-jail former Jets member, Tony (Ansel Elgort), meet eyes. The pair meets behind the bleachers, and their love begins. Bernardo and the leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend, Riff (Mike Faist), are enraged and plan a large fight that results in the death of Riff and Bernardo. Throughout this drama, there are complicated side plots: jealous ex-boyfriends, rape attempts, mixed messages and death. I would give the story a nine, with the only drawback being that Maria and Tony’s love does not hit the right note for modern audiences. While we ultimately root for them, their romance spans maybe a day, making it a little strange when they get married.
However, one of my favorite parts was the chemistry between the leads. When Maria and Tony meet, they begin with a simple, light dance, but the entire time their body language is stiff, with each having the knowledge of who the other is, the strings that come with their blossoming romance. The way that the actors portrayed these characters struck the perfect chord, one of romance met with responsibility and a need for the other over all else. I wasn’t a fan of how fast their romance went before Maria was willing to forgive him for something he does later in the movie. The scene that most stood out to me as the most technically impressive in terms of the acting was one near the climax of the movie where Anita is tasked with entering a Polish store to deliver news to Tony for Maria. The store is filled with men fresh from the fight who eventually make violent moves toward Anita, including ripping her clothes. It isn’t until the matriarch of the story and owner of the store comes out that the boys stop. Valentina, the shop owner, gives a long monologue about how she has known each and every one of these boys since they were babies, and it is hard to see that they have grown up to be rapists. Valentina is played by Rita Moreno, the woman who played Anita in the original version, for which she won an Oscar. I would give the acting in this a nine as well, with the only drawbacks being a singular scene in which Tony falsely hears Maria is dead. While I admire the emotion the actor brought to it, his facial expressions were so intense, they made my 13-year-old sister laugh in the theater.
The song list, unchanged from the original by Leonard Bernstein, was loaded with the classic songs from the 1961 movie and the Broadway adaptation but was recorded anew by the 2021 cast. Most of the vocals were great, with my own personal favorite being Anita’s. The two lead voices, however, were not what they should have been. Individually, they have astonishing voices. Elgort’s Tony is a tenor with amazing high notes and a strong falsetto. Zegler’s Maria is a beautiful soprano who hits the top notes with grace. However, together, I didn’t think their voices meshed. It may have been the sheet music and how the harmonies were composed, or it may have been their vocal chemistry, but because of this, I give the vocals an eight.
This movie, with costumes done by Paul Tazewell, did an excellent job with color theory and the emotions associated with certain colors. It doesn’t take too watchful an eye to notice two very distinct palettes for the gangs. The Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, mostly wore reds, whereas the Jets mostly adorned blue tones. Red is a very culturally significant color for Puerto Ricans; it references the red in their flag which symbolizes the blood lost from the revolution, so not only did the color symbolize their culture, it also symbolized the gang and their violence. Specific costume choices were also frequently significant. At the beginning of the movie, Anita picks out a white dress for Maria. Maria, wanting to branch out and be seen as the adult she has newly become, wants to wear a red dress. During Anita’s opening song, “America,” her dress is a bright yellow, which compliments her personality, but as soon as she begins to dance, the audience catches glimpses of a layer beneath; under her dress there is an abundance of red tulle. Like the song, while she is desperately trying to make the most of the hope that America provides, she is still in touch with her culture at heart. I give the costumes a 10 out of 10.
Nothing about the set or the special effects stood out to me as most of the sets were simple cityscapes, and there weren’t many special effects, so I gave it a passing grade of seven. This movie received a 43, even without the points from my personal opinion. For that category, I give this film a nine out of 10.
Spielberg’s adaptation was an emotional masterpiece that delivered a perfect commentary on violence, love and family. I cried in the theater, a lot. Overall, I give this movie a 52 out of 60, making it one that is not only worth your time, but a movie I adamantly recommend to anyone, even if they aren’t a big fan of musicals.