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Review: 'West Side Story' on Broadway

March 19, 2009 |  9:00 pm


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.


--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

Comments () | Archives (16)

I saw it in previews and it was horrible. Most of the audience did not understand Spanish and was bored by the long period of Spanish only. The vehicle can not be updated as it refers to a bygone West Side of gangs instead of $3000 a month studio apartments. The story is full of sterotypes. People will go only for the beautiful songs but even those are half ruined in this new version. West Side Story had its day. It should have been left alone as a classic instead of "updated" with mini skirts on the female Jets and Tony and Maria in shown in bed together. Has Laurents lost it?

West Side Story is a banal story that originally was entitled East Side Story about an Irish boy who falls in love with a Jewish girl. The producers figured it was not marketable. When they found out about Chicano gangs in Los Angeles and gang violence in the local LA newspaper they changed the story.

Stories like these should be banned from Broadway. NYC is more than 50% latino but these stories denigrate and condescend towards hispanic history. In a world with political correctness in speach and a black president, why do we let abysmal stories like this continue. There is no truth to this story. There never was gang violence like this. However, it has been used as a rationale to label hispanics, stereotyping and pigeonholing them. It is incredible that stories like this, not authored by hispanics and full or racism are allowed to continue to play on Broadway. It is fake and a lie and should be treated as such. The time to stop these plays is now. Boycott this show and signal to the producers that this type of fare should not be tolerated. http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC39folder/westSideStory.html

You folks are all stuck on the political correctness bandwagon. You fail to see the forest beyond the trees. I am Latino, and like most Latinos don't see enough production about our heritage. Today it's all about success, money and assimilation. I understand that with a NYC Latino population that is booming and ever driving our local economies, we should portray Latino's today as they should be portrayed, a vital part of the NY culture. HOWEVER, this IS a classic that celebrated, not denegrated the immigrant Latino community during a time where there WAS biggotry and discrimination. Why should we shy from it and pretend it never happened. This is art's expression of life, a fusion of past and present....so let it be a modern day representation of the way life WAS. We all know how life IS now. Relax people and stop taking life's art, past or present so seriously! It's a classic musical with a taste of modern spice for our younger audience! I applaud the producers for their modern rendition!

I just saw West Side Story and enjoyed it. It was a little shaky in the beginning because I had to convince myself that the Jets were "tough" guys, and Tony's singing wasn't that strong. Then, when Maria came into the picture (or shall I say stage) things changed. She has a beautiful voice and the fact that most of it was in Spanish really gave it a realistic flare. I thought Karen Oliva as Anita was EXCELLENT - her dancing was incredible. To me, she made the entire production!!!!!

This is my first Broadway show and it was horrible. I was so bored and I paid $130 for 3 tickets. Not worth the $ at all. One of my friend wanted to leave halfway through and the other was so disappointed. One comment was that even an off Broadway was better than this. Too much Spanish which I don't understand at all. I have to say tho that Karen Oliva as Anita was very good and the only part that was good was with her. Don't waste your $.

I saw this production last evening and our family of 6 was greatly disappointed. We had not been aware ahead of time that the play was half in spanish and we are Americans who speak english! The actress who played Anita was the best in the show. The actress who played Maria had a lovely voice. The voices of the male leads were not as strong as I expected and none of them looked like Jets or Sharks at all. Hearing "I Feel Pretty" in spanish was a shock and then there was a little red headed boy who sang for no apparent reason other than to showcase his wonderful voice. Totally a letdown. The maestro conducting the orchestra was fabulous. How sad that this wonderful play was changed. It was fine as it was.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing this great production on a recent trip to the City. It was GREAT!. The music and dancing was timeless. As for those who criticize the Spanish GET OVER IT! It brought realism to an already told story. It you can't figure out what's going on by any language, then you're a pure idiot. "I feel pretty" was better sung in Spanish as for the other dialogue, English was used after several words were spoken in Spanish as to make it understandable to those who don't have any imagination. Theatre is about imagination and for those who don't have any, you might be better off saving your $125.00 and investing itin a Spanish dictionary, because whether or not you want to believe it, Spanish is going to be our country's second language. Hooray for the producing team of W.S.S. who had the guts for this latest production. BRAVO!

My husband and I just went to see the show this past weekend. We too were disappointed. It's by far my favorite musical and we saw it in Phila years ago. Completely expected Broadway to blow us away in comparison. Not the case.
There just wasn't enough energy or emotion in this version. Although I appreciated the spanish parts, and felt that this did not detract, I didn't feel that any of the male characters were well cast. I couldn't "buy" into Tony at all.. and almost felt from the beginning that he was impersonating and not being. I suppose once you don't feel for the main character, the rest is lost.
Karen Olivia was amazing - and probably the only reason I felt the show had value. She is raw energy.
One of my biggest disappointments was the "America" song... changing it to a girl only argument and dance scene ruined the meaning it had for me. Not sure how they thought that would make the scene better....
We rated this the 3rd worst play we have seen at Broadway. Which is sad, as we've seen many over the years.

Thursday night four of us saw this play and were very disappointed. From the beginning the love between the couple was NOT convincing and it was downhill from there.

Save your money!

Dinner at BECCO on the other hand was sensational so make reservations and spend your money there.

Dr H

This production lacked spirit ,emotion and conviction. warning STAY AWAY if you love the movie! Changing womb to tomb to sperm to worm laughable.

I just saw West Side Story on Broadway. Overall it was very good, not great, but the Spanish scenes are annoying as anything. Simply put, we are an englsh-speaking American audience, it was written for an english-speaking audience, and the spanish-language scenes, while I understand have been lessened now, are still way too plentiful and kill important scenes and caused me, and I'm sure much of the audience, to zone out. Well not zone out, actively frustrated and annoyed is a better description. Is this PC overkill or artistic impression? Either way, it's not jiving with the audience that is paying to see the show. Truly, it was all white folks. I love the movie and wanted to love this, but couldn't.

I just saw West Side Story on Broadway and enjoyed it very much. I thing it is great that a lot of Spanish was used throughout the play, which makes a more accurate, credible portrayal. It sure improves Natalie Wood's "papa" (potato) instead of "papá". (dad) Whoever does not speak or understand Spanish in the U.S. in this Century should come aboard and understand that these are different times and this is a different country (Thank God). We have iPhones and PCs now, you know. It is sad that there are still ignorant people out there who only see "white folks" in the audience, without that many of those "white folks" are of Latino heritage and understand both languages perfectly.

Bilingual? What about the dream? The SHARKS didn't come here to be Puerto Rican.
So to answer your question "why shouldn’t the recently arrived Puerto Rican Sharks comfortably converse in their native tongue?"
Because they - Want to be in A MER RI CA!
I'll spend all my money on a different production.

My wife, I, and 4 friends just saw the show at the Pantages. Most of what was said above rings true, the music is great, but the bi-lingual nature of the musical numbers and the verbal interaction (around 30%-40%is in Spanish) is too hard to follow if you don't speak Spanish; it seemed that there was a homosexual undertone thruout which was anoying; the Sharks should have been more ethnic looking, as we could not tell who was a Shark and who was a Jet; , Tony was good, Maria's singing was great, but we felt that Anita stole the show. I personally was disappointed at the end as the finale song where Maria sings at Tonys body, was terrible. Final thought, the producers should have stayed with the original play.

This adaption was a huge disappointment. Saw it here in LA and it lacked vibrance. 'Tony' was unbelievable and had trouble hitting some of his notes--though his rendition of Maria Was lovely. The gangs were unbelievable, the sound at the Pantages is atrocious but overall the adaption itself was the most disappointing. Say what you like but a production that's 1/4 Spanish (which is about what I can understand) should have a warning label..... In 'Dear Officer Krupke' the use of his baton as a phallic symbolic was one thing but having them 'shoot' the eye out of one of the other guys with it's, ah, production was gratuitous and then when the original dancer tasted his fingers afterwards? REALLY--it's not creative, just tacky. Then at the end when they rape Anita? Overall, I'm glad I setup a group and we only got stuck with paying $35 because that was too much......

Went to Pantages this weekend not really knowing anything about the show. If you want to see the worst, just skip to the last of this post. Needless to say, we were very disappointed about the added crap to the story. Here's just a sampling you can expect and please do not take your children if you decide to even go yourself.

The beginning are the many racial slurs, that's the minor problem in comparison.

They went on to the very sexual inuendos and then on to the jacking off into the eye of one of the guys and then wiping it from their hand onto their shirt...so inappropriate!




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