I was skeptical about the new revival of West Side Story. Off stage, the casting of Amar Ramasar as Bernardo, Maria’s brother and the leader of the Jets, has loomed over the production. Ramasar has been the object of protests after he was fired by the New York City Ballet for exchanging sexually explicit pictures of female company members. An arbitrator later decided he should only have been suspended, and he was reinstated; expect protesters outside of the theater if you attend.

As for the show itself, I worried that Ivo van Hove’s commitment to video elements would overpower the actors on stage. I was concerned by reports that members of the cast were getting hurt in rehearsals. And I was furious that the choreography of Jerome Robbins — the man who had conceived of the original as Romeo and Juliet, but in dance and with street gangs — would be replaced by the work of contemporary Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

I was wrong. Van Hove and De Keersmaeker’s West Side Story has a ferocious, inventive energy that feels like the city, bringing sharper angles and barely-controlled chaos to the stage.

You know the story: the 1957 musical was written by Arthur Laurents and directed by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and songs by a young Stephen Sondheim. In it, a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, and another gang, the Jets (here played by black, white and Asian actors), are fighting over a few blocks of territory on the West Side of Manhattan. Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, meets Tony, an ex-Jet, at a dance. They fall in love. And then people die.

This young cast of mostly novices (33 out of 50 are making their Broadway debuts) fully inhabit the members of the gang, each exploding with energy on the stage.

Isaac Powell is the exception. He plays Tony with a surprising vulnerability. When he sings “Maria! I've just met a girl named Maria/ And suddenly that name /Will never be the same to me,” we believe that he’s really discovering her name and falling in love for the first time. And Maria (Shereen Pimentel, who like Powell has been on Broadway once before) is more world-weary and sensual—she’s not virginal, she’s a woman who knows what she wants. It’s a terrific role reversal.

Jan Versweyveld

And all the video I was worried about? Unlike in van Hove’s Network, where it mostly just amplified the action on stage, here there are whole scenes staged solely for the camera, including the scenes in Maria’s bedroom, which are performed live backstage in a former theater dressing room. This innovative mashup of movie and theater is appropriate to West Side Story’s history (most Americans came to know it through the 1961 film, after all) and creates a startling intimacy, letting us read the emotions on actors’ faces. This kind of creative vision should be applauded, and for the majority of the show, it’s stunning.

But there are a few missteps.

There are two scenes where graphic violence is projected up on that massive screen. Both times what’s depicted is violence against women, even though the majority of the cast are men, even though the actual deaths that occur are all male ones. In a departure from the original, we see the Shark girlfriend Anita get raped by the Jets when she goes to give Tony a message from Maria (we don’t see body parts, but we see the terror on her face, and a young man in underwear bucking over her). And we see Tony imagining Maria getting shot in the head, blood spilling behind her. There’s nothing else in the production to suggest that it’s concerned about violence against women. To me, this feels like exploitation.

The same is true for an unfortunate scene built around the comic song “Dear Officer Krupke,” which I’m surprised wasn’t cut along with “I Feel Pretty.” (The two police officers in this production aren’t bumbling, cop-next-door types, but menacing bullies.) It’s a fun, clever song about the ways the system conspires to keep “juvenile delinquents” in their places, but van Hove adds a backdrop of sad and angry young men being arrested and put in jail. In a production almost completely devoid of humor and with the video as a backdrop, the comic song is jarring.

This, again, feels like van Hove is feinting in the direction of topicality without actually bothering to make a strong, cohesive political statement. The same issue arises for a third time in the videos behind the song “America,” which show decimated areas of Puerto Rico contrasted against shiny, New York skyscrapers. The videos may seem like they mean something... but they just don’t.

There are more minor things going on here, as well — for example, Arthur Laurents’ language isn’t updated at all, which felt strange in a production where the costumes and dancing are more contemporary. It’s disconcerting to hear black actors be called “micks” and “wops.” At the point that this became a fairly radical re-imagining, why not take a few of the more dated references out?

It was the final scene, when tragedy has struck and rain is pouring down, when the video has been turned off and there’s nothing but 50 actors and the large black box of the theater, that made me feel this revival could have been nothing short of magnificent, and it did feel that way in that moment.

Jennifer Vanasco is WNYC’s Culture Editor and theater critic.