West Side Story
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 24, 2009
The eagerly anticipated Broadway revival of West Side Story is a major disappointment.
This is probably an inevitability. Of all the classic musicals of Broadway's so-called Golden Age, none has been more famously or popularly or faithfully put on film than West Side Story: everything that's iconic about this show is so not because of word-of-mouth or a great cast album but because we've all seen it, as its creators presumably intended it, enshrined and preserved on celluloid (and now digital video) for all time. So we know what Jerome Robbins's extraordinary choreography looks like and how it feels to experience it. We know that amazing Bernstein score. We know all of the beats of the story. (If you don't, here's a good synopsis—with spoilers though!)
It all begs the question of why even bother trying to make lightning strike once again. Librettist Arthur Laurents has decided to take on the project nonetheless, directing the play himself and abetted by Joey McKneely (reproducing Robbins's original choreography), music director Patrick Vaccariello, and more than a dozen above-the-title producers. They've filled the stage with a big cast and seem to have consciously made the show look and feel as different from the original as they dare. The score is intact, and generally sounds marvelous—far and away, the best element of this production is the big Broadway orchestra playing this music for us. The dancing is intact too, as Robbins ordained, but it is utterly devoid of life or energy, sitting uneasily on performers for whom it was not created.
The set, by James Youmans, is big and ugly, leaving little room on the stage for movement. The costumes, by David C. Woolard, are of no particular period: Anita and the Shark girls wear clothes appropriate to the '50s, when West Side Story was written, but the Jets' girls are in mini-skirts from a decade later and the boys' attire (and haircuts) feel very much of today. (Why?) Laurents has not altered the show's book very much, except to have the Puerto Rican characters sometimes speak in Spanish. This has been the most commented-upon aspect of this revival; it feels like a gimmick, and a poorly applied one at that. These people chat in Spanish to each other but when their emotions peak they revert to English, which is helpful to the audience but the opposite of what would happen in real life. The construct completely falls apart in Act 2, Scene 3, when Maria asks Anita to deliver a message to Tony: there's a policeman in the room with them, and Maria doesn't want him to know what she's talking about. Wouldn't this be the ideal moment for her to switch to Spanish?
Laurents does not retain the important change made to the book for the film (by director Robert Wise, as far as I can tell). There, the comic number "Gee Officer Krupke" comes in the first act, while the spectacular dance "Cool" is placed just ahead of the movie's climax in the middle of Act 2. Laurents restores the original order, and it's a bad idea for two reasons. First, "Krupke" interrupts the dramatic tension pretty severely. And second, "Cool" is the very best number in the show. Leaving it in Act 1 makes for a long unchoreographed gap in the last quarter of the show.
Ultimately, the real failure here, though, is a lack of urgency. I never felt the rebelliousness of the kids. I never felt the bitter enmity between the two gangs. I never felt the restlessness of Tony's soul. And I never felt that Tony and Maria had fallen incontrovertibly in love.
The casting contributes to this. Matt Cavenaugh's oh-so-cleancut Tony is a sterile creation, and his phrasing of the songs is often quirky. Josefina Scaglione's Maria is virtuous and smart, but never convincingly a teenager because she projects experience and competence rather than openness and innocence. Cody Green's Riff is even more squeaky-clean wholesome than Cavenaugh's Tony. George Akram's Bernardo is perhaps the best realized of the principals. Karen Olivo acts Anita with fire, but what can I say: I actually saw Chita Rivera perform "America" on stage many years ago, and Ms. Olivo is no Chita Rivera.
Hearing the music live in a theatre is a thrill, but it's not enough to make this West Side Story worth a trip to the theatre. In fact, this revival may have tarnished my memories of this classic show. Find the CD or the DVD and hear and see it as it was meant to be heard and seen. And to Kevin McCollum, James L. Nederlander, Jeffrey Seller and the rest of the producers, I repeat something I've said many times before in my reviews: please find us some new musicals!