Familiar Story Revitalized: West Side Story Comes Into the 21st Century
The past two seasons have offered a hot/cold mix of musical revivals, depending upon who you talk to. For this viewer, no revival is hotter than West Side Story, which is igniting the stage at Broadway's Palace Theatre. Staged by its author, Arthur Laurents, at 92 a true Broadway legend, the show is as fresh, biting and moving as ever. The very subject matter - the racial divide in New York City and related gang violence - caused quite a stir over 50 years ago when the show debuted. "Scandalous!" some cried. But everyone could eventually agree that the score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and, most dazzlingly, the fully integrated choreography by Jerome Robbins had forever changed Broadway, moving it forward in ways that are still felt today. This was my second viewing of the revival, almost nine months to the day apart, and I will offer comparisons where appropriate, but the thrust of this review is the performance seen earlier this week.
A New, Edgy Reality
The subject matter, sadly, hasn't lost its relevance in 21st century America, an African-American in the White House, or not. Racism, hatred, senseless violence and gang warfare continue to dominate headlines. And so, West Side Story is a perfect candidate for revival. Like the recent and brilliant re-conception of Gypsy, also by Laurents, this version has been given a re-look, a tightening, and a new, more dangerous edge. Played straight, WSS can come across as almost quaint, with its "daddy-o"s and "pow pow, crack-o, jack-o"s, and its overly melodramatic love at first sight notion. But here, while the language and instant love remain, it is all grounded in a very serious reality. The characters are much angrier, their words bursting out like bullets, used to hurt not only their enemies, but each other as well. In the souvenir brochure, Mr. Laurents explains this bitter edge and the contrast of love throughout the show: “This is a story of love that cannot survive in a world of bigotry and hate.” Of course, there is the love at first sight, tempered by a very real fear of being caught, mixed with the sweetness of youthful abandon when the whole world slips out of focus except for the person in your arms. But it also explores the love between “brothers” Riff and Tony, and the willingness to stand up and die for each other should it come to that. There is also clarification of romance vs passion vs violence, both in terms of sexuality and unity of cause.
In every element of the show, there is a definite tension, seen in the smooth changes of scenery (minimally suggestive and yet dominating as designed by James Youmans), the harsh, unforgiving light, and the equally harsh, unforgiving shadows (masterfully moody and often shocking as designed by Howell Binkley). David C. Woolard's costumes are a mix of the familiar (Anita's signature purple dance at the gym dress) and mostly an austere, sharp look at the time and the message of this version. Gone are the full suits worn by the Jets at the dance, replaced by tight vests, the occasional tie, the occasional jacket, and everyone in their rumble-ready Converse All-Stars. The Sharks, too, show that mix - the traditional more colorful dress in vibrant tropical color contrasted with the threatening use of black. These boys, are more dressed up, in light of escorting ladies to a social event (their classiness never more evident than here), but they are also dressed in such a way as to suggest that by merely losing a jacket or tie, they are also ready to rumble at the drop of a hat.
The Language Barrier
Along with an all encompassing edginess, this revival employs a somewhat controversial twist - often the Sharks speak in their native tongue. Critics have been divided on this and with good reason. The most significant non-cast change to the show since I saw it at the beginning of the run is the considerable lessening of Spanish as primary dialogue and lyrics (though, if anything, the verbal slurs and side conversations by the Sharks has increased) I’ll admit, I am so familiar with the original dialogue and lyrics, that along with truly excellent acting choices, I understood everything. But it only worked some of the time; other times it seemed forced. Overall, however, I think this adds to the building tension of the piece because when there are whole scenes in Spanish, we, the English-speaking audience, are forced to feel that very detachment that the Sharks feel in all the everyday situations they are in as immigrants to this country. Not knowing exactly what is being said forces one to study the body language and tone of the speaker for clues, which is nearly impossible to keep up with, causing frustration and an isolating distance. Nowhere does this work better than in the scene immediately following the dance, where the Sharks leave their girls to attend the war council. We see the Sharks comfortable for a change, and at the same time can sense a division even amongst themselves as some embrace the move to the US, while others resent the fact that they haven't been able to assimilate. Here, Anita speaks almost exclusively in English, Bernardo switches back and forth depending on to whom he is speaking, and the rest rely on Spanish with the occasional "American-ism," showing that they are trying to come to terms with their situation. It also works in the sweet Act Two opener, "Me Siento Hermosa," known more commonly as "I Feel Pretty." It works because wouldn't a group of young girlfriends not talk in their native language in a purely social situation? The lyrics (translated throughout the show by Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda) are lovely and the staging is so strong, you can't miss the unadulterated joy these girls feel. Still, it comes across much more comfortably now as Maria and her friends alternate verses in Spanish and English. It also makes the abrupt tone change all the more jarring when Chino tells Maria that Tony has killed Bernardo, and the scene, in mid-sentence, changes to English as Maria confronts Tony.
Earlier, the use of Spanish really got in the way a during "A Boy Like That," where Anita, in full Spanish expressed her sorrow and anger, while Maria tried to explain the way it really is. The argument could be made that Anita goes back to her native language in solidarity or because she can more readily express herself in Spanish given the shock she is in. But the effect that had on the audience diminishes a considerable amount of the tension and sorrow we should be sharing with Anita, rather than distancing us from it. Now, Anita sings primarily in English, with only a repeated verse sung in Spanish, and to much better effect. Finally, the sheer power of the "Tonight Quintet" which brings us to the life-changing rumble is still seriously taken down as the Sharks sing their verses in Spanish. Perhaps their first verse, as a way of showing their gang strength could remain in Spanish, while the final full on singing of all five groups could be in English as we all - cast and audience - arrive together at the most tragic of scenes. But still, considering the reconceived raw edge this production has been given, the language choice makes sense and works more often than not, and the reversal back to English in key spots has strengthened the show while still remaining true to the original re-thinking.
Hallmarks: The Score and the Choreography
The grandeur and magnitude of Leonard Bernstein's iconic masterpiece of a score is wonderfully played by a full Broadway orchestra (thank God), under the very capable baton of Patrick Vaccariello.
Along with the show's vibrant, stunning score, audiences have come to expect jaw-dropping dancing. They will not be disappointed by that in this revival. Joey McNeely has reproduced (and tweaked) the equally iconic dance moves created by Jerome Robbins. No detail has been missed. The stunning juxtaposition of ballet moves with character driven street dancing remains fully intact, and are beautifully executed by the most talented corps of dancers currently on Broadway. Here again, the dancing has, if anything, improved as the show settles into its run. Each move is crisp, fully completed, and always in character. One could watch any given actor and see that he or she remains true to the choreography AND to the individuality of his or her character. Even (or especially) the minor characters are as unique as their name and role in their respective gangs. The entire company is in magnificent form during the dance off sequence during "Dance at the Gym." The Shark girls are thrilling in "America," and the Jets and their girls (fantastic character dancers Pamela Otterson, Marina Lazzaretto and Lauralynn McClelland) are equally as chilling in the following number, "Cool," notable for both its icy fight against showing fear and for its frightening depiction of the psychological state of these angry young people. The lone number to have been re-imagined is the "Somewhere" ballet sequence, here sung by a young boy (Kyle Brenn), an up and coming Jet, and Tony and Maria, thrilled in their ecstasy to find that all is finally right between the rival gangs. Gone are the ghosts of Riff and Bernardo, in are the gangs who laugh and dance and become one. The scene is brilliantly staged and the tone and message bring tears to the eyes, both at the sheer joy presented to us, and in the knowing that all of this is a dream and even worse tragedy is to come.
The Company: The Adults
The adult roles in West Side Story have always been somewhat problematic as they are presented as types, very black and white, and come across sometimes as a distraction rather than as a voice of reason, opposition or even agreement. That problem has not been solved this time, either, though every adult has really begun to dig deeper to make more fully rounded characters. On the plus side, Greg Vinkler's hunch-shouldered, world-weary Doc expresses all of that with mere presence, while his words take on that and more as he tries to reason with what he sees as children until he realizes the futility. His sorrow at having to tell Tony that Maria is dead is palpable and nicely played. Also, on the positive end is Michael Mastro as Glad Hand, who provides a fine bit of comic relief before things get out of hand at the dance. He is somewhat geeky, as has been played many times, but he also has a subversive charm as he both tries to get the Sharks and Jets to "just get along" and still lets us know that maybe he isn't as all for assimilation as he must act. Most improved over the months is Steve Bassett's Lieutenant Schrank, who is not really as mean as he thinks he is, but whose words have a scary and acidic bite. The result, especially after his reaction to finding Tony dead in the street and Maria creating a hostage situation, is that one feels certain ambivalence in this cop, rather than a resolute racism. And finally, vastly improved is Lee Sellars' Officer Krupke, who know wields his baton and pistol with a venomous zeal that his truly edgy and sometimes frightening. You can imagine, that backed into a corner, this guy would shoot first and ask questions later. His performance finally validates the song, "Gee, Officer Krupke," a funny, but scathing attack on the adult world of coping mechanisms and justice. Previously, Sellars' take on the role was not nearly enough to make him the subject of such an explosive outburst.
The Company: The Sharks
Those familiar with the film version of the show may be surprised at the relative lack of stage time the Shark boys get in the stage version. Despite numerous local (and illegal) stagings of "America" WITH the Shark boys as in the film, in actuality, they are gone before that song even starts. So, that gang is really present only in key scenes - "The Prologue," "The Dance at the Gym," "Tonight Quintet," "The Rumble," and in stage version, "Somewhere." Relegated to supporting player even in those scenes gives the show a pro-Jet edge, at least on the surface. And given that the scenes they are in alone are now done mostly in Spanish, the distance between this gang and the audience is perhaps even greater than before. And maybe that is the point. In this revival, it is a testament to their quality as actors and dancers that the Sharks do, in fact, make a large impression. George Akram, as Bernardo, is an ultra-macho presence, sometimes more so in his character's mind than in actuality. As the gang leader, his presence works, as it is clear that he runs the show, and it is even clearer that he thinks the way the Jets do things is laughable at best. One gets the impression that this Bernardo secretly hopes for a treaty between gangs so they can get their lives on track. Only when he sees his life personally at stake, when Tony meets Maria, do things change. Young Chino, who murderously defends his betrothed's honor at the end, is played with a charming sweetness and later, a disarming deadly focus by Michael Rosen. The rest of the Sharks – Stephen Diaz, Phillip Spaeth, Isaac Culpito, Michael Williams, Gabriel Canett and Jesus Pacheco- provide plenty of style, anger and subtext.
Clearly, it is the Shark girls who rule this side of the equation, providing a balance of ideas, some pro-America, others anti, but all with charm, grace and a sassy sense of humor. They are reminiscent of the women in last season's In the Heights, providing a sense of family and community, while the "boys" go out and fight. Three of the girls in particular show that sass and fun in "Me Siento Hermosa (I Feel Pretty") - Jennifer Sanchez, Shina Ann Morris and Kat Nejat. They combine, even in mostly Spanish, to show us that these young girls are just like all young girls we might be familiar with, gossiping about boys, primping in mirrors and playing at dress up. But it is Anita, in easily the most well-written supporting role of the show, who, if played well, garners both the audience's favor and sympathy. She is both worldly-wise ("With these boys, you start in dancing and up kneeling!") and sassy - she runs the show with Bernardo. She is sexy ("Anita's gonna get her kicks tonight…") and vulnerable ("Please let me pass, I am here to help!"), and she is angry, too - witness "Un Hombre Asi (A Boy Like That)," which remains powerful on its own in any language. This production has an Anita that is all of that and so much more in Karen Olivo, whose performance now even more justifies her winning the Tony. Her powerful belt is matched by her angular, thin, majestic looks and her substantive acting - a genuine triple-threat.
The Company: The Jets
The American boys are fairly represented here. In this version, their racism and anger are full out, not hidden. There is, as with real American teen males, a noticeable lack of grace and style and an overabundance of self-entitlement. This is a wholly harsh and aggravatingly accurate depiction, one that makes the Jets even more relevant today than even at their inception. The sweet innocence of youth is not wasted on Ryan Steele's Baby John, while the macho need to belong and play with the big boys is surely present in Kyle Coffman’s A-Rab and Mikey Winslow's Big Deal, and the brute strength of becoming a physical man while still having childlike thoughts is very apparent in Alex Ringler (on for Joshua Buscher) 's Diesel. Rounding out the gang are Mike Cannon and Sam Rogers. Sadly, the future of the Jets looks ready for a new generation in the new role of Kiddo, played at this performance by Kyle Brenn, who stalks in the background like the spectral ghost of gangland future. And there is the pro-feminist, and most loyal Jet who isn't even a Jet, Anybody's played winningly by Sara Dobbs, who threatens to steal every scene she is in - in a positive way. All of them have that all-American look - nice looking guys with an inner strength - that is precariously hidden between a veneer of hatred that most of them have because they need it to belong, rather than really believe. Don't misunderstand, their passion for their territory and their anger at the threat against it is real and deeply rooted, but when things go bad, they are the first to question it.
Under the leadership of Riff, and the second leadership of Action, the Jets remain a powerful force, ruling their little neighborhood. Some found Cody Green's Riff problematic (though I have yet to read anyone who has nailed down why), but I found his take on the role to be an interesting one. He gave the impression that while he loved being the gang leader, he'd gladly have given it all back to have Tony back with the gang. Green also imbued Riff with a subtle gentlemanliness - a class not on level with Bernardo's, but a class that suggests he has seen his rival in action and had learned from him. The result was a less edgy Riff, leaving that more to the powder keg that is Action.
But the new Riff, played with a jarring reality and a stunning intensity by John Arthur Greene, erases all of that ambiguity. Instead, he clearly loves being both the leader of the Jets and being Tony’s almost adopted brother. The scene where Riff pleads with Tony to rejoining the gang at the dance and at the war council has a unique tension and very clear love – yes, love – between the two best friends. And that is exactly what Laurents intends with this production. Love in all its forms simply cannot survive in such a lethal environment. And while I appreciated Green’s Riff, I found myself completely enamored of Greene’s take on the role. His Riff is the feisty little brother every older brother wants; his loyalty is admirable, and his passion for life, the Jets and his family are impressive and even heart-warming. Even though you know he is going to die, the feeling of loss when John Arthur Greene’s Riff is stabbed is immediate and devastating.
No one in the original revival cast took Laurents' direction to let the anger flow more to heart than Curtis Holbrook as the first Action. To be fair, Action's part has the most to work with in that vein. Perhaps because I was used to seeing Mr. Holbrook in the charming, goofiness of his last main stem role in Xanadu, I found his abundance of anger very disarming and disturbing, often on the verge of over doing it. And he was so committed to that track, even when he danced, that we never saw a softer edge or even a variation on the theme. As a result, the show's lone comic number, "Gee Officer, Krupke" seemed blatantly out of character and completely unrealistic for Action to sing. Nothing in Holbrook's prior performance would have suggested that Action would know physical or any kind of comedy, let alone vaudevillian dance moves and jazz hand gestures. The number ultimately got a huge hand, as it always does, but the lack of laughs throughout the number suggests that perhaps he wasn't nearly as funny as he thought he is. If he was attempting a psychotic take on the song, he failed.
So it is with great pleasure that I can report that Wes Hart, now in the role, is just as edgy and cruel, and still manages to find a way to get you to understand and even like him a bit. This Action is still hell bent on the destruction of the Sharks, but you can also see a playful side, when he’s dancing with his girl, and even more tellingly that he has a heart in his angry/hurt/completely beaten reaction to a sharp barb about his mother from Lt. Schrank. The result is a powder keg during “Cool,” a loyal second to his leader in “The Rumble,” and a true leader during the scenes that surround and include “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which now earns every laugh as he seeks to reunify the Jets and ease the tension so that action can be taken. In short, both Mr. Hart and Mr. Greene’s performances are giant improvements to both roles and to the show as well.
The Company: The Young Lovers
It was quite a relief to finally see the uber-talented Matt Cavenaugh in a role that truly suited him - Tony. He was all-American with every fiber of his achingly good-looking being, with a charm and style that befits both a romantic lead and a coming of age young adult. His replacement, and his former understudy, Matthew Hydzik does an equally nice job as good guy Tony. His smile will charm you and melt your heart. He exhibits a lovely singing voice, and his songs are so effortlessly delivered, it is as if the numbers were written with his voice in mind. If his vibrato suggests an unnecessary maturity at times, the ease he has with the ranginess of "Maria" and his ability to blend and soar in the power duet "Tonight" more than make up for that small quibble. Like Mr. Cavenaugh, he gives the role full emotional content no matter the emotion required, making each of Tony's wide range of actions equally believable. One can understand his reticence to rejoin the Jets, his full commitment at the Rumble and even his defensive killing of Bernardo.
But even more so, one can believe the all encompassing love he has at first sight for his Maria, Argentine actress Josefina Scaglione, who is by every measure his onstage equal. When they meet the chemistry is immediately apparent, the sexual energy is palpable and the profundity of such true love does indeed make "the world melt away." Never have those hyperbolic lyrics seemed so true than with this pair. When they are together, the show has as much urgency as during the more violent scenes. One wishes that somehow they could be given more to do together! Their "One Hand, One Heart" is charming and beautiful; their awe and relief during the "Somewhere" fantasy ballet is tender and heartbreaking. Miss Scaglione is a marvelous mix of youthful innocence and abrupt growth into womanhood. The contrast between her exuberance in "I Feel Pretty" makes the final scene, altered from the original, all the more devastating to watch. In this newer final scene, a grieving Maria takes Chino's gun and threatens all around her before contemplating suicide. Her sorrow turns to a palpable hatred as she then takes the gun to Action's head, briefly holding him at point blank range as a hostage to the situation. But her true heart overrules this and she goes back to her love, sobbing while everyone around her stands mute in shock and grief. A small gesture of peace-offering comes as a Jet wraps the grieving Maria in her mantilla. Her aching sobs, not the music, bring the curtain silently down. Miss Scaglione proves the perfect choice for Maria throughout her performance, which has only grown in depth as the months have passed, but never with more power than those final memorable moments.
This West Side Story is as close to perfect as I've ever seen. The nine months since I last saw it have vastly improved an already excellent piece. Were today’s West Side Story the one Tony voters saw, the Best Revival Tony might not have gone to Hair. Mr. Laurents has, again, taken a bold look at his own masterpiece, refined it and made it even more relevant for today's audiences. Like a true master, he has forced new audiences to look at the familiar with a fresh eye. Naturally, there may be resistance. But, ultimately, even if every gamble doesn't completely pay off, we are still the better for the experience.
(All photos by Joan Marcus.)
Comments? Leave one here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I saw West Side Story a year ago, during the pre-Broadway DC run. I'd never seen it before, not even the movie. Knowing the movie would have been helpful with the Spanish, but not understanding every word didn't bother me. I could usually get the gist. It was also my first time seeing Karen Olivo on stage (I didn't see ITH for the first time until this past summer). She was spectacular and I enjoyed the show. The music was wonderful, some of which I was already familiar with. I think America was my favorite number. I'm glad you enjoyed the show so much.ReplyDelete
BTW, I think you may have emailed me, but it landed in my spam box, and I hit delete a nano second too soon. Or I could be imagining that and, if so, disregard this bit of the message. londynNow
LOL! Yes, I did return your email. No worries. I always check my spam folder, but I'm sure I've deleted things by accident, too. In fact, your email that I responded to started in my spam. (I just told you to keep writing me at the email address!)
The show played at the National in DC, right? I think the original production tried out there as well. I always feel sad when I think of that theatre because one of my heroes, Bob Fosse, collapsed on the street corner near the stage door there, and soon after died.
Anyway, thanks for writing and being a nice part of this blog.
I saw West Side Story last summer and luckily all the principals were in! It was my first time seeing the show on stage (I'd seen the movie) and I enjoyed it immensely.
The music is gorgeous and oh, those leaping, pirouetting gang members! And Josefina Scaglione is lovely.
The Spanish did bother me a bit, since I don't understand the language. And I think it did interfere with my "getting" a pivotal scene.
But still, all in all a terrific experience.
Yes, the DC run was at the National. I didn't know that about Bob Fosse. I learn so much reading this blog. Thanks.ReplyDelete