Broadway Reviews

West Side Story

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.
Theatre: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
Schedule: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $45, $90, $120
Tickets: Ticketmaster

West Side Story
Cody Green and the Jets
Photo by Joan Marcus.

They’re at it again, those two bloodthirsty factions battling for limited space. Their conflict may seem meaningless to you, but to them it’s literally a matter of life and death. So when you see them duking it out onstage at the Palace, in the new revival of West Side Story that just opened there, you can’t help but be reminded of the countless other times they’ve played their violent game in the name of some primitive notion of progress.

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.

West Side Story
Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh
Photo by Joan Marcus.

And disruptive. The central love plot, of the American Tony falling for the Latina Maria and unleashing a series of events that proves the heart cannot conquer all, has never felt as important as the movement that brought it to life. Robbins so steeped the show with the physicalization of the fire and freedom of the youth-owned streets that Tony and Maria have been as enslaved by dance as they have been by the prejudices that keep them apart.

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.

West Side Story
Karen Olivo and George Akram
Photo by Joan Marcus.

But among those actors, the old-time virtue of charisma is in short supply. Of the leads, only Karen Olivo evinces any: As Anita, she sings and dances with a pointed, on-the-edge fervor that justifies each of her mood swings and shreds of open-mindedness. Cody Green’s Riff flashes a few glimmers of misbegotten innocence, but like George Akram’s Bernardo is too bland to be threatening; Curtis Holbrook, as his cohort Action, swings too far in the other direction, scowling more than he acts and making the show’s usual comic centerpiece, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” into a laugh-free affair. As Tony and Maria, Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione are a well-matched pair: handsome, emotionally vacant, and insecure (him) and shrill (her) when singing their high notes.

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.


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