“You have to show that so that the people can understand,” says Bernardo after the torrid dance scene in the first act of “West Side Story.” “People don’t understand other people so they have no compassion.”
Bernardo (Ray Winstone) and Tony (Jeremy Jordan) are talking with the teenaged Veruca Salt (Rashad Jennings) after the gang’s job. Veruca has come out of the crowd to tell them that she lives in a neighborhood where people have mercy on the young. Everyone stares at her, apparently disbelieving. One boy chases her across the sidewalk, trying to restrain her as she runs down the road.
The next moment, there’s a flash of violence. People turn and run. Veruca is hit and falls to the ground with no one to help her. Her mother (Keala Settle) is beginning to worry.
Bernardo convinces Tony to stay with him. He tries to help Veruca, but she is disoriented and confused by what happened. Bernardo realizes that whatever happened, it was not the reaction she expected. Veruca cries and begs him to take her back to the other side. Bernardo also breaks down.
Bernardo’s dilemma is typical for the protagonists in “West Side Story.” Most of them are outsiders whose only connection to the world is through the other, and everything they are doing is either meant to help or subvert that connection.
The movie is no longer the auteur-driven masterpiece of 20 years ago, but it still plays better than most stage musicals do. Fassbender and Robbie as Bernstein and Robbins do a splendid job of pulling the strands together and keeping them moving while not losing the complexity of the lyrics. Audiences rarely need words like “blood” or “tears” or “accident.” But there are times when they would work better if the characters had spoken it.
The lighting here is spectacular, especially during “America.” The feel of the show is wonderful, with so many moments where you can feel as if you’re out and about in the 1950s, but still hear that modern pulse.
Bernardo, the quintessential NYC street hustler, carries the most intense emotional journey. While “West Side Story” has a fair share of overtones with the “ghettoization” of New York in the 1960s, much of its plot relies on a realistic face being stuck on that experience. One gets a visceral sense of the racial problems that played out back then when Bernardo keeps running from police. He can hear the garbage trucks and the puddles of sweat that never seem to dry in the immigrant neighborhoods. And then there’s the gunfire and the war cries of the different gangs. This view is more impressive because it is authentic.
Maybe Bernardo can be blamed for Veruca’s predicament. But if you don’t want to have a dream come true for the new kid you’re given as an immigrant, you might not be able to fix the social problems that give rise to the war machines that roil that same neighborhood. This is why we keep hearing war speak so clearly as the primal force shaping the fictional characters’ lives.
Ultimately, Bernardo comes to realize that this whole tragic saga in East Harlem is better rooted in love and compassion than in violence. He takes Veruca back to their old neighborhood and convinces the bus driver to help her out of the crowd. The bus turns into a bus stop as Bernardo brings her close to the home of the son who cares for her. They hug as the cops come in and arrest the crowd of teens he had scattered. She has learned how to lose and how to win.