In my humble opinion, West Side Story is probably the greatest musical ever written. With stunning choreography by Jerome Robbins and a luscious score by Leonard Bernstein (lyrics by Steven Sondheim), West Side Story changed the face of Broadway forever when it first appeared in 1957. If you see one musical in your lifetime it should be West Side Story. After more than 5o years, West Side Story is brought back to life in the capable hands of director Arthur Laurents. This ambitious revival reminds us all of the beauty of this classic with just a few minor missteps.
Set in New York City in the mid 1950's, West Side Story gives the audience a glimpse of gang life, love, loss, and the racial tension between the "whites" (The Jets) and the Puerto Ricans (The Sharks). The protagonist, Tony, a member of The Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, leader of The Sharks. As the violence intensifies their love is tested. Lives are lost, hearts are broken, yet the story ends with a feeling of renewed hope.
The show opens with the famous "Prologue", an acrobatic ballet of gang taunts, fist fights and street chases with sharp choreography recreated by Joey McKneely. We are introduced to both gangs and the leader of The Jets, Riff, played brilliantly by John Arthur Greene. Mr. Greene did not fall into the trap of making Riff cartoonish. He is a true triple threat and brought a great deal of sincerity to the role.
We meet Tony played adequately by Matt Cavenaugh. Mr. Cavenaugh has a wonderful voice, yet his movements seemed forced and occasionally awkward. When playing opposite Josefina Scaglione (Maria) he settles into the role. Ms. Scaglione was plucked from the Argentinean production of Hairspray where she played Amber Von Tussle. Her current role requires a bit more depth, and depth she delivers. Ms. Scaglione brought so many new dimensions to this character. Her youthful interpertation of the role was moving and heartfelt.
Curtis Holbrook plays a convincing Action, while George Akram is a bit over-shadowed as the Shark Leader, Bernardo. The most impressive talent on the stage is none other than Karen Olivio (Anita). Step aside Rita Moreno, there is a new girl in town and she is on fire. Ms. Olivio recently created the role of Vanessa in the hit musical, In The Heights. She portrays Anita with passion and understanding. Her voice rings through the house, she moves with attitude and you feel each moment as she takes this role to a whole new level.
Of course West Side Story has some of the most memorable music of any Broadway show including: Something's Comin; Tonight; Maria; America; One Hand, One Heart and A Boy Like That/I Have A Love. West Side Story has one of the greatest orchestrations in history. Bernstein understood how to set a scene with a simple melody, a complex musical phrase or a combination of both. The orchestra and the cast blended perfectly in this revival.
Director Arthur Laurents stays true to the book (that he wrote), but adds elements to prove to the audience that West Side Story is a timeless classic. This was not necessary. West Side Story is a timeless masterpiece. For example, when Puerto Rican actors have a scene together the dialogue is in Spanish. It makes sense. If a group of native Puerto Ricans are hanging out, they probably would speak Spanish. However, adding this piece of realism was not necessary, the language change was sometimes distracting and dancing in the streets of New York City is already far from realistic.
The casting for West Side Story was genius. I applaud the creative team for choosing actors that looked age appropriate. West Side Story works so much better when you can embrace the young naivety of these characters. The scenes that people look forward to, "The Dance at the Gym", "The Balcony Scene" (Tonight) are worth the price of admission. The only scene that did not work for me is "Somewhere". This "dream ballet" should give you the chills, but instead it left me cold. It lacks a story, a dream. A random boy soprano serenades the house with a pretty rendition of the piece, but I am not sure what he is doing there or who he is.
The scenic design by James Youmans was appropriate and he pays great attention to detail. Even the orchestra edge of the stage appears to be a street that stops just short of the audience. The fight under the highway provides the audience with one of those jaw dropping scenic moments as a bridge grows before our eyes. Costumes by David C. Woolard look a little "Gap" for West Side Story, although I have to believe that he was given a direction to show no time and place for the piece. Lighting Designer, Howell Binkley creates some really beautiful moments. The moonlight he created for "Tonight" was breathtaking.
All in all, this revival of West Side Story is definitely worth attending. Seeing West Side Story in a community, high school and/or college theater will never equal what you will find on Broadway. Dancers need to nail Jerome Robbins' choreography and this company does. The cast gives it their all and adds a lot of heart to this revival. You can tell that this group of actors, feel a responsibility to present this timeless masterpiece with respect. The lessons of love, loss and compromise are in gifted hands and will resonate with you as you leave the Palace Theatre.
WEST SIDE STORY
A Kevin McCollum, James L. Nederlander, Jeffrey Seller, Terry Allen Kramer, Sander Jacobs, Roy Furman/Jill Furman Willis, Freddy DeMann, Robyn Goodman/Walt Grossman, Hal Luftig, Roy Miller, the Weinstein Co., Broadway Across America presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, based on a conception by Jerome Robbins. Directed by Laurents. Original production directed and choreographed by Robbins. Music director/music supervisor, Patrick Vaccariello. Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely.
Tony - Matt Cavenaugh
Maria - Josefina Scaglione
Anita - Karen Olivo
Riff - John Arthur Greene
Bernardo - George Akram
Action - Curtis Holbrook
Sets, James Youmans; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; wigs and hair, Mark Adam Rampmeyer; makeup, Angelina Avallone; translations, Lin-Manuel Miranda; orchestrations, Bernstein, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal; music coordinator, Michael Keller; associate director, David Saint; associate choreographer, Lori Werner; associate producer, LAMS Prods.; original Broadway production co-choreographed by Peter Gennaro; technical supervisor, Brian Lynch; production stage manager, Joshua Halperin.
Opened March 19, 2009.
Running time: 2 HOURS, 28 MIN.
With: Nicholas Barasch, Steve Bassett, J. R. Bruno, Joshua Buscher, Isaac Calpito, Mike Cannon, Kyle Coffman, Stephen Diaz, Lindsay Dunn, Joey Haro, Eric Hatch, Michael Mastro, Lee Sellars, Greg Vinkler, , Yurel Echezarreta, Marina Lazzaretto, Yanira Marin, Mileyka Mateo, Lauralyn McClelland, Joseph Medeiros, Kaitlyn Mesh, Shina Ann Morris, Angelina Mullins, Kat Nejat, Pamela Otterson, Sam Rogers, Michael Rosen, Jennifer Sanchez, Manuel Santos, Ryan Steele, Tanairi Sade Vazquez and Michael Williams. Photo Credit: The Cast of West Side Story, Photo by Joan Marcus.