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‘West Side Story’: In Spielberg’s hands, the classic musical feels wonderful, witty and bright

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The reboot pulsates with life, thanks to the director’s artistry and a sensational cast led by Rachel Zegler in a starmaking feature debut as Maria.
When Steven Spielberg was filming “Jaws” in 1974 (for a 1975 release), we were just 13 years past the release of the iconic and acclaimed blockbuster “West Side Story.” Flash forward nearly a half-century, and the young man who overcame all those problems with Bruce the mechanical shark back in the 1970s to kick off his feature film career has achieved unquestioned status as one of the greatest and most successful directors in the history of cinema — and at the age of 74, Spielberg has pulled off a magnificent feat in delivering one of the greatest reboots of all time. Soaring. Exhilarating. Magical. Heartbreaking. Unforgettable. Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remains faithful to the 1957 Broadway musical source material (which, of course, was inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”) and is still firmly rooted in the New York City of the 1950s — but also manages to come across as fresh and timely, thanks to the screenplay by the great Tony Kushner, some key tweaks to certain characters and moments and song placement, and a sensational feature film debut by Rachel Zegler, who delivers a star-making performance and makes Maria her own from the moment we see her on screen. (We’d also be remiss not mention the classic original music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim, respectively.) The opening sequence of “West Side Story” sets the tempo for some obvious modern-day parallels, when finger-snapping Caucasian toughs led by Mike Faist’s volatile, born-angry Riff steal paint cans from one of the many construction sites in their gentrifying neighborhood and deface a mural of the Puerto Rican flag. (Shades of bigots whitewashing “Black Lives Matter” murals.

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