• by Wes Singleton

West Side Story -B

Rated PG-13, 156 minutes

Well, first off, it isn't the original. However, the Steven Spielberg remake of the Oscar and Tony-award winning musical "West Side Story" isn't perfect but still holds up well, thanks to the timeless story, solid production values and energetic choreography. It'll appeal most to musical theater aficionados and fans of the first film, who'll notice a few changes from the original production.


The film tells the story of the forbidden love between Tony ("Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort) and Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler in her film debut) and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs in the Upper West Side of New York City of different ethnic backgrounds. Their love presents some challenges to both sides, including tragic circumstances that will permanently change their lives and families.


This version of "West Side Story" runs a little closer to the original late 1950's Broadway production, which became a sensation and winning a number of Tony Awards, before being adapted into the Oscar-winning 1961 film. Those familiar with the story knows it runs parallel to Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet," centered by the forbidden love of the leads. Adapted by Kushner, who also penned the screenplays for Spielberg's "Munich" and "Lincoln" makes a few noticeable changes, including changing the character of Doc to Valentina, played by Oscar-winner Rita Moreno, who won her Oscar for the 1961 film (she's terrific here too and a true living legend), adding diverse characters of color and gender to provide a modern feel, as well as updating the order of some of the songs.


The authentic photography, shot on location in New York and New Jersey by Spielberg and his go-to cinematographer, Oscar-winner Janusz Kaminski, along with the sets, costumes and original choreography by Tony-winner Justin Peck, all add up to sublime production values that provide more to like than not. It should be noted that Peck's energetic choreography, while not on the same level as the legendary Jerome Robbins, whose sensational moves made the original a big hit, is still first-rate.


Spielberg, in a departure from his usual historical or fantasy epics, provides an overall deft touch to the proceedings, even if the story is foolproof and all but sells itself. The minor quibbles here are with the music and casting. The iconic musical numbers, including the well-known "Tonight," "America," "Maria" and "I Feel Pretty" feel a tad dated, and it wouldn't have hurt to cut or update some of them, including the unnecessary "Gee, Officer Krupke" or even the "Jet Song" to provide more efficiency. Spielberg wisely keeps intact Elmer Berstein's big musical score, adapted here by David Newman, adding an epic flavor to the story.


The two leads, Tony and Maria, played by Elgort and Zegler, are servicably bland and they do the job fine, especially Elgort, though as in the 1961 film, the supporting characters (all wisely played by Broadway actors here) are much more memorable. Bernardo, played by Tony-winner David Alvarez-Gonzalez, one of the original Billys from "Billy Elliott: The Musical," and Anita, played by Broadway star Ariana DeBose, are much more fun to watch (and these are the roles that won George Chakiris and Moreno their Oscars for the original film). Mike Faist (of "Dear Evan Hansen") and the uber-charming Moreno herself, also serving as producer and given the brief number "Someday," also get in good moments.


Spielberg's "West Side Story" keeps intact some old-school Broadway sensibilities, while providing some decent updates and a nice energy to an age-old, touching story. It's not perfect, but it also hits some good notes and there's more to like here than not. Box-office wise, this 2 1/2 hour musical tribute to "Romeo & Juliet" may be a tough sell to those outside the musical theater set, who will certainly enjoy this the most.