Theater review: 'West Side Story' at the Pantages Theatre
“West Side Story” is one of those vintage musicals that doesn’t need marquee names to reel in an audience. Its story (a midcentury Manhattan “Romeo and Juliet” by Arthur Laurents), its groundbreaking original staging and choreography (by Jerome Robbins) and its score (the collaborative fruit of Leonard Bernstein and a young Stephen Sondheim) provide all the star power anyone could want. The show is the headliner — the production is secondary.
But the revival that just descended on the Pantages in time to cash in on holiday box-office ca-ching is really pushing it. How mediocre is the production? There were moments during Wednesday’s opening night performance when someone would have had to pinch me to get me to remember that I was not in a high school auditorium.
This is what’s passing for the national tour version of the current Broadway production of “West Side Story.” Directed by Laurents (the world’s youngest nonagenarian), the New York revival was hardly one for the ages. It initially created buzz by serving up Spanish translations of some of Sondheim’s best known lyrics in an attempt to make the show grittier and more authentic. But the only truly memorable element was Karen Olivo’s Tony-winning turn as Anita, a thorny Spanish rose played with fierce ghetto-sexy showmanship.
David Saint directs this faded Xerox copy of Laurents’ production, and the clumsy opening sequence, in which gang members roam the stage like lost boys in need of a GPS navigator, lends the feeling of a desperate dress rehearsal. The choreography (Joey McKneely reproducing Robbins’ original hard-hitting ballet moves) is executed with what can only be called enthusiastic uncertainty. Not even the acoustics cooperate.
Enter Tony, the show’s Romeo. Tough yet contemplative, he’s grown tired of the street warfare of the Jets, loyal as he remains to his neighborhood buddies, who are currently fighting with the Puerto Rican Sharks. There are many ways to play this character, but it’s probably not advisable to turn him into a walking Banana Republic ad.
Kyle Harris, as fresh-faced a Tony as you’re likely to encounter, seems out of place in the musical’s rough-and-tumble milieu (a college campus would be a much better fit). One could understand the casting of a pretty boy who was a superlative singer, but Harris lacks the necessary vocal range. He sounds just as you’d expect the genial glee club hunk to sound.
Ali Ewoldt plays Maria, the sister of Bernardo (German Santiago), the Sharks’ battle leader. A lithe, feminine, Juliet-like presence, Ewoldt has no trouble hitting her high notes during her duets with Tony. But she isn’t particularly persuasive in her dramatic handling of “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” She acts, then sings, then acts some more. Her fluidity improves when she’s performing “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish with her girlfriends. But the couple’s romantic moments are wooden, the stuff of carpentry class, not helpless, ill-starred amour.
Anita, the role that made stars of Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, is a gift to an actress, and Michelle Aravena, all frizzy hair and low-budget fashion, tries to give the character a more realistic spin. It’s possible to imagine this clever young seamstress riding the subway without breaking into song while high-kicking around a pole. The just-an-ordinary-city-girl characterization has merit, and Anita’s frightening run-in with the Jets late in the show has a fresh ferocity. But such a purposefully contained approach can't rescue a production this lackluster.
After a shaky start, the dancing grows in confidence, and the male cast members make Robbins’ leaps and twirls seem every bit as terrifying as they should. And say this for Saint’s staging, the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number comes off more naturally than it did under Laurents’ guidance. The wise-guy element infuses this vaudeville diversion from the dire plot with violent menace.
“West Side Story” can rely on nostalgia addicts, who will be content simply to recall the musical theater’s halcyon days. And of course there will be newcomers who won't be able to resist the manifold theatrical seductions of this tragic love story. But Los Angeles deserves a better revival, and this classic isn’t doing itself any favors by showing up in stumblebum attire.
-- Charles McNulty
"West Side Story," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. For schedule information, visit www.BroadwayLA.org. Ends Jan. 2. Price: $25 - $100. www.BroadwayLA.org or 1-800-982-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Photos: Top: National tour of "West Side Story." Bottom: Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt. Credit: Joan Marcus