Friday, January 09, 2009

How The West Was Won - West Side Story - Musical Review

West Side Story - National Theatre - Washington, D.C. - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Runs until Jan. 17th - Previews begin on Broadway at the Palace Theatre on Feb. 23rd for a Mar. 19 Opening
Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Original Chreography by Jerome Robbins, Book and Directed by Arthur Laurents
Uncredited Spanish Translations by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com:

You may have noticed I've already written about the new Broadway-bound West Side Story that original book writer Arthur Laurents is bringing back with a new hot young cast that's supposed to be grittier and more authentic than previous versions. I loved it so much that I actually ended up seeing it three times while I was still in D.C. last month.

This exuberant and exciting new production may have some flaws that keep it from being perfect, but it's pretty darn close, at least in emotion and dramatic heft (despite what some naysayers are saying on the message boards). Granted I've never actually seen the musical on stage and have nothing to compare it to, I thought this new "grittier" and more "realistic" version (or as realistic as you can get when the boys in the gangs dance to ballet) is emotionally enthralling and brings the musical that has entered into many people's hearts back to the Shakespearean tragedy it was originally based on. There are longer pauses, the drama has been amped up and revisions of entire scenes and songs into Spanish, making the scenes of Maria, Anita, Bernardo and the other Puerto Rican Sharks more realistic and authentic. It ironically adds a clearer understanding to the "other" side, making them look less like villains and instead brings out the inherent misunderstandings and prejudices of the situation and setting.

Subtitles were originally used for the first few performances but as of my last viewing and this week's "official" opening, the subtitles have been nixed, but I found that the passion and emotional drama was clear enough to understand the plot. There may be a few jokes lost in the translation but you get the raw core of the story (and the songs are so famous by now that you're probably humming along in English already).

The score and songs by Leonard Bernstein (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) are basically historical treasures at this point and they still feel fresh and vibrant. The original choreography by Jerome Robbins is simply heavenly (and Robbins is a GOD. The dancing alone in this show is worth seeing), culminating in a cathartic dream sequence in the Dream Ballet and "Somewhere", now reconfigured with a small child singing the first lines before the Jets and Sharks begins softly dancing together. This is counterpointed with harsher and more cynical versions of "Gee, Officer Krupke" and a looming bridge backdrop that lowers, where the darker aspects of the play come out front and centre. These kids may be dancing Robbins exquisite ballet choreography or some energetic "The Dance at the Gym" but the story is still about the war of races on the streets of New York.

New find Josefina Scaglione, plucked from musicals and operas from Argentina, shines brightly as Maria and her dramatic turn from silly naive girl to tragedy stricken woman in the final breathless scene is heartwrenching. Her voice is spectacular and her real Spanish accent adds to the realism.

Karen Olivo (In The Heights) breathes attitude into the pores of Anita. Every word, every inflection, evey flip of the hair, every twist of the leg, Olivo's Anita is no longer simply Maria's older sidekick but a real woman who tragically falls into the infallible natures of humanity despite her flinting optimism (of "America"). Anita's near-rape scene is brutal, disturbing and uncomfortable. This is not the West Side Story you've probably come to love and all the more powerful for it.

Cody Green (above right, Step It Up and Dance) is stupendous as the strong and sturdy gang leader Riff and plays it "Cool" and collective. His Abercrombie good looks might actually be a distraction (and too pretty to be in a gang for some) but his surprisingly strong and baritone voice along with a simmering fire underlying Riff's anger burgeons on being explosive. On top of that, Green's dancing is jaw-dropping and his whole body evokes the "cool" sensibility. George Akram (above left) is Maria's older brother and Anita's boyfriend and he creates a humanistic Bernardo as opposed to simply being the villainous enemy.

If there's a weak link, it's Matt Cavanagh's lead Tony, who isn't bad but probably ill-suited as he can't seem to shake off the good preppyness of some of his former roles (as Joseph Kennedy Jr. in Grey Gardens and as a groom-to-be in A Catered Affair both in which I loved him) and I just didn't believe that he was a former Jet gang member on the reform. At this point, he seemed too reformed and it leaves little connection to the Jets, his supposed former buddies. His voice also seems too vibrato and operatic for Tony's songs but when he sings with Josefina, it still works. I will say that I did enjoy Matt's performance more and more in subsequent viewings and his chemistry with Josefina's Maria seemed to spark more by my last viewing (their "One Hand, One Heart" and bilingual "Tonight" is gorgeous) so I'm hoping with some more time together, it will truly sizzle.

The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, including a scarily psycho Curtis Holbrook (Xanadu, Saved) as Action and an adorable Ryan Steele as Baby John whose dancing skills and kicks are as high as you can imagine (and then even a bit higher than that). Danielle Polanco (Step Up 2) and Jennifer Sanchez are particularly funny as two of the Shark girls/Maria's friends. Tro Shaw is perfect as Anybodys.

While the brightly coloured costumes are a bit Gap-like, I don't mind the wide time range the costumes evoke, giving it a timeless feel as inaccurate as it may be. There's enough of the daddy-o speak and sets to give us a timeline.

There's a stretch in the first act when Tony first falls in love with Maria that seems slowly paced and poorly cued with Tony standing on the spot singing "Maria" but overall, the shows overpowering message and energetic presentation overcomes the collection of minor flaws (and remember, I still saw it during previews during the out-of-town pre-Broadway trial so things can still change).

In the end, a beautiful score, the terrific dancing and some great star-making performances help establish the heartbreaking tragedies in the powerful story of Romeo and Juliet retold as a musical. This new Broadway-bound production (the first since the 80's) is simply dazzling and mesmerizing with the emotional wallop the show is supposed to deliver. It won my heart over (and it landed on my Best of Stage 2008 list).


Esther said...

Wow, terrific review, Vance. You really make me want to see this! I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. I can tell that it really touched you.

jessica said...

I just wanted to say: you keep putting the 'enemy/villain' tag on the Sharks. Isn't the point of the musical/story that they are both essentially in the wrong? Either way great review. I cannot wait to see it live.

Vance said...

I do? Maybe I need to clear up the sentences but I said that they AREN'T just like villains/enemies and much more human and equal in this version.

Either way, Go see the show!!!

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