Monday, July 27, 2009

West Side Story

Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

A promotional photo for West Side Story perfectly illustrates one of the things I love about the current Broadway revival - the gang of Jets in midair, knees bent, seemingly defying gravity. Oh, those leaping, pirouetting chorus boys!

In fact, there is so much I loved about this show.

I loved watching Jerome Robbins' acrobatic, ballet-like choreography, wonderfully reproduced by Joey McKneely. After seeing Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year and now West Side Story, I'm totally in awe of Robbins' work.

As if that weren't enough, there's the gorgeous, instantly recognizable score by Leonard Bernstein, with poignant lyrics from Stephen Sondeim in songs like "Somewhere," "One Hand, One Heart" and "Tonight."

Arthur Laurents' book so effectively turns Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed lovers into a story about rival New York City gangs the Jets and the Sharks - and the prejudice faced by the Puerto Rican Sharks.

Josefina Scaglione, a 21-year-old Argentinian opera singer, is lovely as Maria, a young woman newly arrived from Puerto Rico, eager and appealing. Tony winner Karen Olivo gives a great performance as Anita. The girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo (George Akram), she's a wise and strong Latina woman and so much fun to watch in "America."

On the other hand, I've liked Matt Cavenaugh in other roles but here, he seems a little too clean cut as Tony, the Polish-American former Jet who spots Maria at a dance. He and Scaglione were sweet together as lovers but I had trouble imagining that he'd ever been in a gang or would ever do anything remotely violent.

Still, I think this revival does a good job of evoking the turf battle between the Jets, led by Cody Green's Riff, and the Sharks, led by Akram's Bernardo. Okay, maybe they don't all seem like gang members but Curtis Holbrook was scarily effective as Action, one of the Jets. There's one scene where Anita ventures into the Jets' territory that's truly horrifying.

But for me, the use of some Spanish dialog and lyrics in two of the songs, translated by In the Heights composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, didn't work. They ended up being distracting and I don't really think they added anything to the experience of watching the show.

It didn't matter as much to me in "I Feel Pretty" because that's obviously a comical song and it was kind of nice to hear Scaglione sing in her native language. But in "A Boy Like That," an emotional scene between Maria and Anita, I felt like I was missing something important. Plus, no offense to Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I wanted to hear Stephen Sondheim's lyrics!

True, the English translations were printed in the Playbill but I wonder how many people read them beforehand and even if they did, remembered them. Maybe super-titles would have helped, or a mix of English and Spanish so that you'd get the gist of what the song was about.

I guess the point was to accentuate the feeling of estrangement on the part of the Puerto Rican characters, of being strangers in a strange land. Laurents told New York magazine that "the idea was to equalize the gangs" by giving the Sharks their own language.

I think in West Side Story it's important to understand what the Puerto Rican characters are up against as they make new lives for themselves in New York City - and that comes through so clearly. I don't think the Spanish was necessary.

Still, sitting in the Palace Theatre, I definitely got a sense of why West Side Story, first produced on Broadway in 1957, is such a classic musical. This was my first time seeing it on stage and there were many times when I was simply swept away by the beauty of what I was watching and hearing.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

Amen. I want to go again to be transported by that glorious score and choreography. I wish all musicals would indulge our auditory senses with a a orchestra like that. I only disagree with you about the Spanish translations. It just didn't bother me but I grew up in surrounded by Mexican culture where a mix of Spanish/English is a way of life. It never occurs to me that people don't know Spanish, it's such an integral part of American culture.

Esther said...

The Spanish wasn't a deal-breaker for me. I still enjoyed West Side Story. But I did feel like I was missing something in the exchange between Anita and Maria.

But I agree - it was so wonderful to hear the orchestra begin to play that memorable prologue and the choreography is so amazing. I'm very glad I saw it!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the whole show, and I had seen the original. In fact I've bought tickets to take my grandsons in April.

The Spanish didn't bother me, but to be fair, I know the English lyrics like the back of my hand. And I though they added to the mood. There is also the song between the two gangs where the Jets sing in English and the Sharks in Spanish, which I missed in the performance, but noticed when listening to the cd.

Thanks for a wonderful site.

Kathy Boyce

Esther said...

Thank-you very much for the comment, Kathy! I'm so glad you like my site. And I'm glad you're taking your grandsons to West Side Story. I hope they have a great time. It's such a classic show.

And that is a good point about the Spanish adding to the mood, too. Unfortunately, I didn't know the lyrics like the back of my hand!