The Jets and the Sharks, the white teenage gang and their Puerto Rican antagonists, are not mirror images of each other. Ostensibly fighting for control of several devastated neighborhoods in the western 60s, they collide like taxis racing towards each other on a one-way street.
Sharks are the children of an aspiring migrant working class, a generation (or less), remote from the predominantly rural poverty in the Caribbean and determined to find a foothold in an imperial metropolis where they are greeted with prejudice and suspicion. Bernardo (David Alvarez), their leader, boxer. His girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) works as a seamstress, and his younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) works the night shift as a cleaner at Gimbels department store. Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), who Bernardo and Anita think will suit Maria, is a future accountant with glasses. (But of course Maria falls in love with Tony, a reluctant Jet played by heartthrob Ansel Elgort.) They all have plans, aspirations, dreams. Street violence for Bernardo is a necessary and temporary evil that must be overcome with hard work and social cohesion on the way to something better.
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The Jets, by contrast, are a bitter remnant of a cohort of immigrants who have largely fled to the Long Island suburbs and Queens bungalows to gain a share of postwar prosperity. As police officers, Officer Krupke (Brian D’Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) are willing to explain – and as the Jets themselves testify – these children are the product of familial dysfunction and social neglect. Without an aspiration for the future, they are held together by clan loyalty and racist resentment – an empty sense of white rights and an ever-expanding catalog of grievances. Their nihilism is personified by Riff (slender Mike Feist), a brawler who would rather fight than win.
As the song says: “Life in America can be bright / If you can fight in America.” But what remains after this West Side Story is a darkness that seems to belong more to our own evil, tribal moment than the (relatively) optimistic 50s or early 60s. A broken heart comes crashing down so hard because the outbursts of joy are so intoxicating. Big comic and romantic numbers – “Tonight”, “America” and, yes, “I Feel Beautiful” – are full of colors and feelings, and the stupidity of “Officer Krupke” sounds like an inner satire of some of the show’s outspoken liberals. pies.