Musical Masterpiece: Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story”

I remember the first time I saw “West Side Story.” I watched the 1961 film during class at my Catholic elementary school decades later — on a square TV on a rolling cart — and it was transformative. I immediately loved the music, choreography, dancing, characters, and storytelling. I watch that version from time to time and it never gets old.

The new “West Side Story” will likely be one that I watch over and over too.

Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY.

I saw the new film a few days ago at a VIP preview screening and I’m still thinking about it. The musical is dreamy, endearing, dramatic, poignant, and more.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story” sticks close to the storyline of the 1957 Broadway show and the movie that followed a few years later. The plot: rival groups, the Jets, white street rats in New York City, are battling turf wars against the Sharks, Puerto Rican newcomers to the neighborhood. What happens when a love story sparks between a girl and guy from the different groups?

One of my favorite scenes is when leading man Tony (Ansel Elgort), who used to be a Jet, spots leading lady Maria (Rachel Zegler), sister of a Shark, at the dance. When the two see each other, they lock eyes and form an immediate connection.

Spielberg’s “speed up” effect at the dance shows everyone dancing fast and everything happening quickly — except time seems to stand still for Tony and Maria. Even in a crowded room, they’re the only ones.

There’s so much to love about this new version of the classic doomed love story. Like the original film, the music, choreography and dancing are delightful.

The casting is amazing too. Scenes with Maria and Tony are filled with emotion. Their chemistry is palpable and even though the characters have known each other for only a few days, you really feel they’re meant to be together forever. I particularly enjoyed Elgort’s version of “Maria” and Zegler’s, “I Feel Pretty.” Their duet, “Tonight” is stunning.

I love Rita Moreno (Anita in the 1961 film) in a grandmotherly role as Valentina, the candy store owner and Tony’s boss. Her singing performance of Somewhere” showcases a lot of emotion, including longing for what could be.

Rita Moreno as Valentina and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Current Anita (Ariana DeBose) is a powerhouse who sings, dances and exudes confidence. Don’t miss her singing and dancing to “America.” Mike Faist is fun to watch as Jets’ leader Riff, a tough guy who’s full of personality but lacking direction in life. Fernano (David Alvarez), leader of the Sharks, is a boxer who’s proud of his Puerto Rican roots but overly protective of his little sister, Maria.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

This new musical, which runs two and a half hours, stands on its own. It’s more of a companion to the original film than a competitor.

At a time when we’re all used to watching movies on TV, tablets and even phones, “West Side Story” is meant to be seen in theaters. It comes alive with engaging music and amazing colors. It looks and sounds incredible on the big screen.

West Side Story opens in theaters on December 10, 2021.

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