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Review: 'West Side Story' on Broadway gets dark update, loses some of its cool

Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, center, as lovers

Isaac Powell and Shereen Pimentel, center, as lovers Tony and Maria are caught in the middle of a gang war in "West Side Story" at the Broadway Theatre. Credit: Jan Versweyveld

WHAT "West Side Story"

WHERE The Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway

INFO $39-$229; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE A very serious update of Jerome Robbins' high-energy blockbuster.

Is America ready for a snapless "West Side Story?"

The switchblade-style finger snaps of teenage gangs is one of the most iconic moments from "West Side Story," the 1961 movie musical based on Jerome Robbins' jazzy, snazzy Broadway play. A contemporary spin on "Romeo and Juliet" set in the once-gritty streets of what is now Lincoln Center, "West Side Story" captured its moment but somehow still feels timeless: innocent yet sophisticated, entertaining but edgy and quintessentially American — much like those finger snaps.

They aren't the only things missing from this modernist, downbeat update of "West Side Story" from two Belgian avant-gardists, director Ivo van Hove (returning to his minimalist roots after "Network") and choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Gone are the vibrantly colored backdrops, replaced by a massive video screen that simulcasts the action on an empty stage. The mid-'50s setting has become the Present Day, which means slicked-back hair and short-cropped jackets have become hoodies and high-tops. Only the play's foundations remain: Arthur Laurents' book and most of the songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

The result is an awkward collision of classic Hollywood and European experimentalism. We still have our star-crossed lovers — Maria (Shereen Pimentel), who runs with the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, and Tony (Isaac Powell, a charmer with a sweet singing voice), formerly of the rival Jets. Yet the dangerous erotic charge between them no longer works in this radically reworked context. For one, de Keersmaeker's choreography is largely asexual, with halting, mannered movements that feel more intellectual than carnal (aside from a slinky-hipped mambo by the Sharks, led by Amar Ramasar as Bernardo). Dance numbers like "Jet Song," "Cool" and the irrepressible "America," which sprang joyously under Robbins, feel Earthbound and anxious here.

There's another wrinkle: The Jets are no longer all-white but highly diverse, led by African-American dancer-actor Dharon E. Jones as Riff. Score one for diversity (two, if you count the gangs' openly gay couples), but this is a missed opportunity. Here's a classic play with newly urgent themes of white racism, nationalism and anti-immigrant violence. These could easily have been brought to the fore, but van Hove instead soothes our consciences with inclusion. When he does attempt to rip from the headlines — by turning the comedic gem "Gee, Officer Krupke" into an angry broadside against police brutality, for instance — it feels like an overreach.

The more its re-creators try to contemporize "West Side Story" — there's an intensely staged sexual assault on Maria's friend Anita (Yesenia Ayala) and one graphically bloody shooting — the more the ebullient spirit of the original cries out to be heard. You're more likely to leave this production stroking your chin than snapping your fingers.

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