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Review: 'West Side Story' on Broadway

March 19, 2009 |  9:00 pm

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The further we get in time from when “West Side Story” was written, the more the musical’s mythic dimension come into focus. This beloved 1957 classic earns its timeless status not through the authenticity of its snapshot of gang-ridden New York but rather through its re-envisioning of “Romeo and Juliet” as a ravishing fusion of drama, dance and song.

Broadway’s new bilingual production of “West Side Story,” which opened Thursday at the Palace Theatre under the direction of Arthur Laurents, the book’s 91-year-old author, aims for a more realistic approach. What we get is a grittier look at the street violence between the Sharks and the Jets, those turf-warring toughs from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the translation (by Lin-Manuel Miranda) of some of the dialogue and lyrics into a more dramatically appropriate Spanish.

These renovations all make perfect sense (why shouldn’t the recently arrived Puerto Rican Sharks comfortably converse in their native tongue?). But it’s the heartbreaking story of two amorous young people, caught in the ethnic enmity of their rival communities, that continues to grip us — amazingly, even in a production in which Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione) struggle to fill out their archetypal roles as star-crossed lovers.

West_side_story2_2The show’s indestructibility, if ever in doubt, is now beyond doubt. Laurents’ direction, while not a miscarriage, is extremely patchy, particularly when the plotting gets complicated. As with his recent Broadway staging of “Gypsy,” that other bellwether of the American musical he co-authored, the blocking of key narrative moments can get smudgy.

Fortunately, just as you’re noticing that Scaglione’s singing is a whole lot better than her acting and Cavenaugh is about as tough as a lanky J. Crew model, a Jerome Robbins dance number, vibrantly reproduced by Joey McKneely, whisks you into an ecstasy zone where all such complaints seem trivial. Unfolding on an impressionistically grimy New York set designed by James Youmans and lighted by Howell Binkley to suggest an urban inferno, the musical manages to stay one step ahead of its production’s shortcomings.

Certainly, the extraordinary variety and operatic fullness of Leonard Bernstein’s score goes a long way toward covering up the directorial fumbling of crucial emotional events (including the rushed, clumsily staged final scene). And the bright wattage of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics alert us to depths overlooked by the actors.

Miranda, the composer, lyricist and former star of the Tony-winning “In the Heights,” has prepared a Spanish version of “I Feel Pretty” (“Siento Hermosa”) that has the same bubbly effect as the original. And though I missed hearing the pungently phrased “A Boy Like That” (“Un Hombre Asi”)  in English, Karen Olivo’s Anita, the sharp-tongued girlfriend of Maria’s overprotective brother Bernardo (George Akram), spits out the words as though she were shooting daggers from her mouth.

If all the performers had Olivo’s fire, this production would have been combustible. She's absolutely smoldering in the all-female version of “America,” adding intense gusto to her character’s predilection for Manhattan over San Juan. With David C. Woolard’s costumes sexily evoking tenement life on a warm summer night, the number rivals the company’s rendition of “Tonight” as a first-act crescendo.

Not that Cavenaugh’s crooning of “Maria” doesn’t get the heart racing. His voice can sound reedy elsewhere, but here he completely sells this almost prayerful expression of romantic astonishment. Scaglione, a lithe Argentine beauty, has a charm and openness that makes Tony’s desire for her seem as logical as basic arithmetic. It’s only when more than an ingenue presence or a lilting soprano is required that an awkwardness sets in.

As Riff, the leader of the Jets who wants to teach the Sharks who’s boss, Cody Green fits into the milieu more readily than Cavenaugh, whose boyish face and dancer’s body wouldn’t scare an old lady wandering alone in a dark alley. Akram’s Bernardo is mostly notable for the anger and menace that’s magnified in a character who keeps bumping into ethnic slurs and baseball bats in this supposed democratic land of opportunity.

If “West Side Story” has a weakness, it lurks in the work's embarrassment of virtuoso riches. The gracefully souped-up choreography of the gang members can seem risible if you should momentarily slip out of the artfully perpetrated hypnosis. Are these hoodlums heading to a brawl or a Juilliard audition?

Laurents is smart to up the vicious criminal ante, but he’s not able to make sense of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the song in which Bernstein and Sondheim impose a bit of vaudevillian shtick on the Jets. Played with less musical theater relish than usual, the number fails as both sociological portraiture and comic relief.

But who cares? “West Side Story” still tops nearly every other musical that’s followed it. Laurents’ uneven production may be noteworthy for the way characters slip in and out of Spanish, but the show continues to seduce in a theatrical language that remains universal.

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--Charles McNulty

Top photo: The Jets perform "Cool" in "West Side Story." Middle photo: Josefina Scaglione as Maria and Matt Cavenaugh as Tony. Bottom photo: Karen Olivo, center, as Anita. Credit: Joan Marcus

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