It takes a lot to tempt this monkey into a cinema. Put another way, it hasn’t been in one since 2015. To quote actor Ernest Thesiger, “the noise, the people” – talking, eating, phoning, just not worth the hassle.
On the other hand, this is Bernstein and Sondheim... the audience can’t be that awful, can it? In fact, barring a trio of self-entitled folk who were outstandingly rude to a charming young manager, this time around they were better than many theatre audiences. So, off to a good start.
Anyhow, from the moment the camera pans over a demolition site (one day to be the Lincoln Center), we know this is a radically different take on a beloved classic.
Forget the stylised original film in which, as on stage, the songs emerge from the action in musical theatre tradition. Here, they are almost incidental. Sure, the music is always there lush and full from two symphony orchestras. The songs themselves simply happen as the cast appear to think them in the mood they are in.
Rumours of the demise of “I Feel Pretty” are greatly exaggerated. A new immigrant cleaner, dazzled by the stock of the store she is cleaning as well as the boy she met at the Gym dance indulges in a daydream. The object of her desires likewise reflects on his life in song and best of all, the lady who looks after him smashes out of the ballpark “Somewhere” – take a bow Rita Moreno as Valentina.
You read that correctly. A new character, a wise store owner who provides a new centre to the script and a neutral gathering place in divided territory.
Her introduction is typical of the whole approach to the film and what makes it so refreshing. Most of the characters are given a proper history, new layers and dimensions so that we understand just why the teens are “depraved on account of being deprived” and how their gangs are the only family they have. It makes the whole film considerably more accessible to younger generations and brings new meaning to those familiar with the original form.
Casting is along strict racial lines, with Iris Menas (Anybody) a welcome and radical choice. Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) are as young and golden a couple as Romeo and Juliet, with voices to match. Lovely work too from Ariana DeBose (Anita) and David Alvarez (Bernardo) – almost “what could have been.” DeBose given “America” celebrated in the alleys and poverty-stricken streets she will fight to emerge from is a highlight, Bernado’s boxing poster on the wall of their apartment heart-breaking.
As expected, the big set-pieces are huge. The dance at the gym is an inspired re-thinking, the original circle given a considerably more realistic tone. The final battle takes place in a salt store, the wound made more painful perhaps. The closing shot too is a new classic as the camera pulls away from a community under our microscope for two and three-quarter of the shortest hours the monkey has ever spent watching anything.
Impressive in every respect, worth braving to see on the big screen, is the monkey’s conclusion.