Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 19, 2009
West Side Story Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Directed by Arthur Laurents. Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely. Scenic design by James Youmans. Costume design by David C. Coolard. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Wigs & hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Translations by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Orchestrations by Leonard Bernstein with Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal. Starring Matt Cavenaugh, Josefina Scaglione, Karen Olivo, Cody Green, George Akram, Curtist Holbrook, with Nicholas Barasch, Steve Bassett, Kyle Brenn, Mike Cannon, Kyle Coffman, Joey Haro, Eric Hatch, Matthew Hydzik, Michael Mastro, Lee Sellars, Tro Shaw, Ryan Steele, Greg Vinkler, Mark Zimmerman, Joshua Buscher, Isaac Calpito, Haley Carlucci, Peter Chursin, Madeline Cintron, Kristine Covillo, Lindsay Dunn, Yurel Echezarreta, John Arthur Greene, Manuel Herrera, Marina Lazzaretto, Chase Madigan, Yanira Marin, Mileyka Mateo, Kaitlin Mesh, Angelina Mullins, Kat Nejat, Christian Elán Ortiz, Pamela Otterson, Danielle Polanco, Sam Rogers, Michael Rosen, Amy Ryerson, Jennifer Sanchez, Manuel Santos, Michaeljon Slinger, Tanairi Sade Vazquez.
The groups, however, are not the Jets and the Sharks. Those collections of roiling teenage hooligans are still here, but they’re serving two much more powerful and destructive masters: the past and the present. It’s their battle that subsumes not only the underground 1950s New York in which Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) set their musical, but also the most elemental notions of theatre - and leaves a number of significant casualties in its wake.
Though a success when it opened on Broadway in 1957, this updating of Romeo & Juliet about strife between contemporary white and Puerto Rican gangs was never a record-shattering hit. It was most notable for Jerome Robbins’s innovative choreography and direction, which were woven into every corner of the show to make turf skirmishes and knife fights as balletic as a second-act dream scene that pleaded with everyone to just get along. Dance had been making inroads into musical theatre narrative for decades, but seldom had it been this vital, shocking, and dangerous.
The impact of Robbins’s advancements has been dulled over the last five decades: by time, by countless other productions and a famous film version, and by the many musicals and choreographers that Robbins’s work inspired. And, unfortunately, West Side Story without genre-overturning choreography is really not much of a story at all, composed almost exclusively of one-dimensional characters acting on their most primal lusts. So although this isn’t a show that’s dated in the traditional sense (it’s a shade too fantastical for that), and Leonard Bernstein’s music still retains for most a glorious romantic sweep, it’s not exactly relevant to the world or the theatre of today.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Laurents, who as a director transformed Gypsy into a Gorgonian mugfest last season, would attempt to revise and reconceive this one as well. He’s exerted a stronger hand on his actors and made tiny adjustments to his book, but his most daring choice has been to have the Sharks speak and sing in Spanish. Although a fascinating idea, especially as implemented by the fearless young Lin-Manuel Miranda (a 2008 Tony winner for his music and lyrics for In the Heights), in practice the notion strips the show of what little complexity it had.
The story always derived its thrust from the notion that the Jets, despite being composed of young men from Italian, Polish, and similarly diverse backgrounds, couldn't accept another kind of immigrant into their fold. The Sharks were thoroughly assimilated, but it wasn't enough. The subsequent cascade of tragedies for Tony, Maria, the Jet and Shark leaders Riff and Bernardo, and all the others were wrenching because of their utter preventability.
The use of competing languages makes explicit and vulgar what was originally a subtly shaded point about the irrationality of prejudice. Worse, it substitutes no notable musical or dramatic value. Miranda’s Spanish is implemented only intermittently, and often apparently randomly. Sometimes the Sharks speak it in private, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes affection for or resentment toward one country or another is in Spanish, sometimes it’s in English.
That English lyrics for the two fully translated songs, Maria’s joyous “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” for Bernardo’s fiery girlfriend (and Maria’s confidante) Anita, are included in the Playbill, but no Spanish translations are for the others, suggest an uneasy dichotomy and even gimmickry. And though Miranda has meticulously retained Sondheim’s rhyme schemes, his lyrics do not fall effortlessly on the music; this is most noticeable in the “Tonight” quintet, sung on the night of the big Jet-Shark rumble, where English and Spanish overlap to muddying and distracting affect (and, for no discernible reason, the Sharks sing the word “Tonight” in English).
It doesn’t help that nearly all the men look like they spend far more time lifting weights than pummeling each other in alleys, that Joey McKneely’s recreations of Robbins’s choreography have been polished to an unconvincingly urban brightness, or that (as with Gypsy) some tempos have been unsafely accelerated and every song has been overamplified. But if Laurents hasn’t resisted these modern fillips, he’s retained the grand Golden Age sensibility in a few key places: James Youmans’s grittily detailed (and plentiful) sets, a 29-member orchestra (which, under Patrick Vaccariello’s musical direction, sounds terrific playing the original Bernstein-Sid Ramin-Irwin Kostal orchestrations), and a 37-person cast.
The most dynamic performer barely has any lines. Pamela Otterson is impossibly sensual as Riff’s girlfriend Graziella, using her minimally assigned struts and kicks to own numbers no one else even wants to rent. Clad in a tight red dress, and always intensely focused on some carnal pleasure or other, she’s the reigning queen the Cold War-waging “Dance at the Gym” and melts the Jets’s “Cool” into a puddle of sweat. Otterson is the only one who connects the past and the present and enriches both: by merging sex and dance in a way that would undoubtedly have made Robbins beam. But one can’t imagine him - or anyone speaking of any ethnicity - getting excited about much else in this unexceptional West Side Story.