Plenty of Pow! in 'West Side Story'

theater review

Laurents-directed revival retains sad beauty of the original staging

January 11, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

The Broadway-bound revival of West Side Story that opened Wednesday in Washington has dirt on its shins and blood under its fingernails.

It is urgent, explosive and revved up with testosterone from the moment the curtain rises and Riff, the leader of the Jets, stalks on stage and stares hard at the audience. We are unnerved. It is dark, and the neighborhood is rough. Maybe we can sidle past him. Nothing bad has happened. Yet.

We are watching the out-of-town tryout for a production that has been generating buzz since July, when the director, Arthur Laurents, was interviewed in T he New York Times.

The revival not only boasts an impressive pedigree - the 90-year-old Laurents wrote the script for the 1957 world premiere - but also has a bold, new bilingual staging, with some dialogue and songs sung in Spanish.

Because this remains a work in progress, the creative team has been tinkering with the concept and staging during the three weeks of performances that preceded Wednesday's official opening. The show will be "frozen" for just 10 days, during which no more changes can be made. West Side Story closes at the National Theatre on Jan. 17, and previews begin in the Big Apple in late February.

This production could move exactly as it is to the Great White Way tomorrow and be a success. If Laurents and his collaborators can fix a few problems in the second act, there will be no stopping it. West Side Story might well be Broadway's next big hit, and the mesmerizing Karen Olivo, who plays Anita, could be its next big star. Every part of Olivo's body is opinionated, expressive and radiates personality, including her earlobes.

West Side Story - with its jazzy, restless score by Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins' propulsive choreography - is a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. By humanizing its punks and hoodlums, it became a kind of 1950s equivalent of The Wire.

The musical showed us that Shakespeare's story is as much about gangs as it is about star-crossed lovers, and that street culture is as ritualized and choreographed as ballet.

Laurents thinks that West Side Story invites the audience to side with the Jets against their rivals, the Puerto Rican Sharks, and it's true that members of the white gang have an individuality denied their brown-skinned competitors. Many of the director's innovations, such as translating dialogue into Spanish, are aimed at undoing the show's built-in bias.

It's curious, then, that Laurents doesn't adopt a practice of the 1961 film by having the Sharks square off against their girlfriends in the staging of "America." Instead, the women sing the entire song.

In the movie, the women are proudly pro-America, while the Sharks recount the hardships they face in the land of the free. It's possibly the only time the musical looks at the world through the eyes of the Puerto Rican men.

Overall, I applaud Laurents' impulse to deliver portions of the dialogue in Spanish, but at times this technique is carried too far.

The Spanish translation works for "I Feel Pretty" (now "Siento Hermosa"). Those never were Stephen Sondheim's strongest lyrics, and Maria's teasing by her girlfriends doesn't substantially advance the story. But, when Anita berates Maria for her continued romance with Tony, the man who has just killed her brother, in "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love," the action is more difficult to follow. Non-Spanish speakers will get the broad gist of the quarrel, but that isn't enough. We need to know exactly how Maria succeeds in winning Anita's reluctant support.

If Laurents continues to stage the number in Spanish, he should provide surtitles.

Josefina Scaglione, a resident of Argentina, is a fresh and appealing Maria, and she has a shimmering, supple soprano. Matt Cavanaugh displays a tenor as tender and throbbing as Tony's heart.

Against your better judgment, when the couple sings "Tonight" in the balcony scene, you really do believe in love at first sight.

The pair is less convincing in the tragic scenes. It is possible for a young woman to throw in her lot with her brother's murderer, but she would not submit easily to her passion. There would be something anguished and torn about her love.

And, later, when Tony is told that Maria has been slain, Cavanaugh reacts with no more feeling than if he'd just been handed a traffic ticket.

The final death scene, when Maria keens over Tony's body, works no better. It is more emoted than felt, and lasts too long. If Laurents is rethinking the entire musical, why not trim the ending? Why not create one poignant, wrenching moment calibrated to have maximum impact, and bring down the curtain with a bang?

And yet, this production has moments - many, many moments - that are nothing short of sublime.

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