KellieAnn’s “West Side Story (2021)” review from the Fan Effect Podcast. Skip to 15:12 on the podcast player, or read the review below.
“Fan Effect Podcast” Producer KellieAnn here, for the Theater Nerds perspective on “West Side Story!” (2021)
Wow, just wow!
We are used to not just ‘none and done’ performances in the theater world. We live for a production to be reworked in new revivals, interesting casting choices, transformative timelines, and characters in interesting cultures. While an average movie-goer might not understand the need for revisiting a classic like the 1961 original “West Side Story” film, we do. And obviously, Steven Spielberg does also.
Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a triumph of modern cinematography, which is both respectful and expansive of the original story, as well as the Shakespearean inspiration. It added deeper channels of feelings and layers onto the already classic story. Spielberg deserves a standing ovation for the way he handled this beloved story.
Now Andy has already gone over the plot of this remade tragedy, so I just want to take a minute to expand on some of his observations in his earlier review.
The story of “West Side Story” takes place on the Upper West Side in New York City in the 1950s, just as the post-war baby boomers are coming to age and massive upheavals of social and cultural identity are taking center stage in American politics. The original Broadway production was staged in 1957, with the film production coming out only a few years later in 1961. So essentially, these tellings were of the moment, including the socialite norms and expectations of the moment. Now, some 60 years later, as cultural ideals and technology have progressed, Speilberg is able to thoughtfully and skillfully tackle the story not only with more perspective due to passing time but in a way that showcases our continuing struggle to accept the “other” and ourselves.
He does this by shaking up, and waking up, some of the story elements that are only hinted at before. Tony is stated clearly to have gone to prison and why. The perils of both gangs, the ‘Jets’ and the ‘Sharks,’ are raised beyond a simple territorial dispute. Violence and blood are seen on the screen instead of just the stylized choreography, which, don’t worry – is still there as well. More monologues plunge into the depths of the motivations and backstory of the characters—even the use of Rita Moreno in a different way to the original showcases wiser, more reflective storytelling. Themes of identity, connection, and love are woven into the tapestry of the film in a beautifully delicate way that highlights the beauty of the original without dining the enlightening glow of the newly infused moments.
I am an outspoken love of Speilberg’s work since I was a young child obsessed with Animaniacs, to the now-adult whose favorite movie is Jaws, and loves to insert phrases like “Spielbergian” into her reviews. And this show reminds me why. There is a concept at the Disney parks called “plusing.” Where, as they continue to grow and develop, they don’t want to take that original magic away but add, or plus, the experience. That is exactly what Speilberg has done with HIS remake of “West Side Story,” plussed up the experiences of the original without removing its magic.
Using the lens of a camera, he added depth to a beautiful but flat stage. His casting choices and their performance chops added youth and life to the characters. There is a visual chemistry on the set beyond that of the performers, but the vibrant costumes, gritty streets, sweeping music, and textured lighting all added to the magic on the screen.
Now, I think that is all I can say without spoiling anything. Honestly, I could gush about this show’s beauty and storytelling. And have to friends and family. But I am biased; I went in expecting to love Spielberg’s work, and wasn’t disappointed. I have seen several productions of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet, and was a Jet girl myself. Heck, when the dance scene choreography came on screen I still knew it! I guess it’s true what they say, when you’re a jet you’re jet all the way.
In the meantime, if you love Speilberg and even just tolerate the original “West Side Story,” go see this on the big screen. Give yourself to love and respect this remake like I do, and let its deeper themes sink into your very being.
Thanks for being patient with this gushing theater nerd!
And as always, I hope you join us again for real soon for another episode of Fan Effect.