West Side Story
A Broadway classic leaps to new life.
Thu Mar 26 2009
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5
Photograph: Joan Marcus
The roughed-up and gorgeous new revival of West Side Story begins with a stare-down: not between the Jets and the Sharks, street gangs at war over grassless turf, but between the cast and the audience. The orchestra stabs out the opening chords of Leonard Bernstein's prologue; and then there is silence as the Jets, one by one, step from the dark and fix the Palace in a freezing gaze. They are daring the crowd to think of them as chorus boys instead of gang members, daring the crowd to blink. The crowd blinks.
The silence established in this opening gambit endures in the rapt attention of the spectators, many of whom, by the end of the musical's 1950s variation on Romeo and Juliet, may have found themselves blinking back tears. And much of the credit for this revival's power must go to its director, Arthur Laurents, who not only wrote the book on West Side Story—literally—but also understands the subtle changes that the show must undergo in order to work its magic more than half a century after its 1957 premiere.
The musical's status as a masterpiece rests largely on its two most exceptional assets: the expansive push and pull of Bernstein's score, and the extraordinary mix of truculence and grace in the dances created by the show's original director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins. But modern audiences, weaned on the sour milk of irony, have a built-in resistance to song and dance in a dramatic context, especially one so violent as West Side Story's. The show had to adapt, and Laurents has labored—within the constraints of what remains a faithful account of a 1950s musical—to disguise its traces of old-fashioned corn and bring its themes into hardened focus.
Without sacrificing their humanity, Laurents has piloted the Jets out of lovable-ruffian territory and into a darker zone, where (despite likable flashes of humor and believable camaraderie) they often exude a sense of reckless menace. Robbins's thrilling dances retain their balletic leaps and extensions—here, the fists really do fly—but, tweaked by choreographer Joey McKneely, they now have a harsher thrust and a more cutting attitude behind them. When the Jets' leader, Riff (the capable Cody Green), advises his men to stay cool, the fire he is fighting is all around him—especially in the volcanic rage of Curtis Holbrook as Action, reinvented here as a sneering skinhead. (Later, in "Gee, Officer Krupke," Holbrook turns a vaudeville comedy bit inside out with chilling sarcasm.)
The Puerto Rican Sharks, too, have been toughened—and allowed to speak in their own language, which gives them a dignity otherwise lacking in their thinly written roles. While individual Spanish words will be lost on nonbilingual audiences, the foreignness forces you to watch the Sharks and the Shark girls more carefully, and make an effort to understand them. With help from Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), who has penned smart translations for several of Stephen Sondheim's original lyrics, Laurents gives the alternation between languages specific meanings. When Anita—played by Karen Olivo with a potent mix of sexual bravado and streetwise sadness that compensates for her relative lack of snap as a dancer—switches from English to Spanish in the second act, it is a pointed rebuke to the America that she had earlier celebrated in song.
But this West Side Story is by no means relentlessly bleak. In the middle of its world of scraped faces and casual bigotry, there is Maria, sister to the head Shark, Bernardo (George Akram). Embodied with heart-lifting simplicity by the lovely Argentine newcomer Josefina Scaglione, she is an oasis of purity in a polluted landscape. Her forbidden romance with Tony, a former Jet, is at the core of the plot, and here is where the revival makes its only major stumble. Tony is a thankless role (overemphatic at the start, melodramatic at the end) that requires more than the handsome Matt Cavenaugh can bring to it. No matter how hard he tries—or sometimes, because of how hard he tries—he reminds you that you're watching a Broadway musical.
Yet despite this central caveat, West Side Story soars. A longer review might permit more attention to the intelligent design of Howell Binkley's lighting, James Youmans's set, David C. Woolard's costumes and Dan Moses Schreier's sound; to the expert turns in small roles by Michael Mastro, Greg Vinkler, Tro Shaw and others; to the sheer excitement of seeing the huge cast in Robbins's spectacular dances, and hearing Bernstein's majestic score played by a full orchestra. This is Broadway in very fine form: standing up to face darkness head on, and unafraid to be a thing of beauty.
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