Liza's NOT at The Palace! Instead, a revival of the 1957 landmark musical West Side Story directed by its librettist Arthur Laurents, has moved in on Liza's turf, switchblades drawn.
I splurged on great seats for the very first preview as a gift to my partner, José, for Christmas. He holds West Side Story in high regard, so this was a treat for him as well as interesting for me to see his reaction to this latest re-invention (it was revived in 1960, 1964 and 1980 and of course spawned the classic 1961 film).
For the third time in recent years, my early-bird habit found me seated very close to a production's director—I have sat by the directors of The Ritz and Young Frankenstein, and last night sat two rows behind Arthur Laurents. As such, I was able to monitor his reactions to the show, which he seemed to temper for the very reason that he didn't want to draw attention to himself. But attention needs to be drawn—he is 91 years of age and is finally directing what was the first musical he ever wrote, hot on the heels of having directed his musical Gypsy to big success for the third time and has a new play opening in the spring. That he is still so creatively and physically adept—he dashed up the aisle unaided at intermission—is an in inspiration in and of itself, that he is openly, unapologetically gay is also noteworthy. (Read his smart, dishy autobiography from 2000—Original Story By: A Memoir Of Broadway And Hollywood—if you get a chance. The man wrote the plays Home Of The Brave, West Side Story and Gypsy, the movies Rope, The Way We Were and The Turning Point, directed Barbra Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale and fucked Farley Granger. Or pre-order his Mainly On Directing: Gypsy, West Side Story, And Other Musicals.)
Laurents has stated that he feels this production is more modern than the original in that every member of each of its now iconic teenage gangs—the white Jets, the Puerto Rican Sharks—is portrayed as having the potential to be a killer; only the musical's romance-drunk leads, Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione) are presented as truly wanting to live outside the street life. He's also trying to be innovative by making this a Spanglish production, using Spanish with no subtitles or translation in key scenes. Most noticeably, "I Feel Pretty" is now "Siento Hermosa."
After the jump, see a brief curtain-call video at the end of the post...
Some boys like that.
For me, while I enjoyed this West Side Story very much, I don't think he has achieved a truly contemporary resonance. Wisely, the setting remains the mid-1950s, but while there is plenty of evidence that a story about gangs, about senseless killing, about the desire for change, might connect with current events, I felt the presentation only achieved this in certain moments. The overall effect was that it was sporadically thrilling but also sometimes frustrating to experience some scenes having an undeniable impact while others danced tantalizingly close to but still far from transcendance.
may better know, the story is based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, following the brutal turf war between Hell's Kitchen gangs The Jets, led by Riff (Cody Green), and The Sharks led by Bernardo (George Akram). Their hatred for each other pervades every action in the musical, and is enflamed when reluctant Jet member Tony and Nardo's sister Maria, freshly arrived from Puerto Rico, fall madly in love at a school dance. The lovebirds' first meeting is presented as a series of light kisses that leads to a dramatic showdown between Nardo and Tony.
Fed up with The Sharks and fueled by a racism shared by the local cops, The Jets throw down the gauntlet, challenging their rivals to a rumble under the bridge. At Maria's behest, Tony attempts to halt the fight, instead securing an agreement that only skin (fists) will be used—no knives or guns. Instead, the fight gets out of hand and Nardo kills Riff with his blade, leading to Tony avenging that slaying with one of his own—he kills Maria's brother in a fit of rage, effectively condemning himself and their love.
The most striking aspects of the show are those I would argue make it well worth your time and money. First, the sets are stunning, stylized masterpieces, with the fight scene inducing gasps for its three-dimensional underbelly of the bridge. The reproduction of Jerome Robbins's Tony-winning choreography by Joey McKneely still looks extremely cutting-edge and is executed by amazing dancers in possession of the best, most lovingly presented butts on Broadway. With music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (this was his first musical), there's no complaint there—and in fact, I fell in love with Cavenaugh's tenor and the sweet, sweeping, operatic beauty of Scaglione's vocals.
I was also impressed with the weaving of Spanish into the show. I have never bothered to learn Spanish (which is a personal scandal), but I am pretty good at contextual understanding and had no problem figuring out what was happening at various points. It was actually informative of the characters as to when they would slip to and from Spanish, and José tells me Lin-Manuel Miranda (he of In The Heights fame) did an excellent job translating. (However, José, as a native Spanish speaker from Puerto Rico, was deeply annoyed with Laurents for choosing actors with pronounced Argentinean and Venezuelan accents—and one actress who was sounding out her Spanish, obviously not able to speak it. I have to agree this was either sloppy to the point of being insensitive or just a bad choice. After all, if accents don't matter, then why aren't The Jets conversing with Southern twangs? (Note: Cavenaugh's New Yawk accent comes and goes.)
Yes, Cavenaugh was the stud from Urban Cowboy.
Gorgeous Cavenaugh, though slightly long-in-the-tooth (he's 30+), is lovable as Tony, perhaps too—it's difficult to accept it when he allows himself to be drawn back into the fray, let alone when he kills Nardo. His singing and dancing are great. Scaglione is absolutely perfect as Maria (if you don't speak Spanish and/or don't note her accent)—she sings with a seducing purity and succeeds in making Maria's decision to forgive a boy she just met for killing her own brother and go on loving him. (The 12-year-old Puerto Rican girl in front of us was not persuaded on this point, which is probably a good thing, right? I mean...he killed your brother!)
"America" girl Karen Olivo is a kick.
But the highlight for me is Karen Olivo, so memorable as Vanessa in In The Heights. As Anita, the role created by Chita Rivera and that won the Oscar for Rita Moreno, she proves herself a worthy successor, singing not only beautifully, but—unlike any of the other performers—displaying a 100% convincing connection to the material. Hers is the most compelling story arc as we watch her go from giddy American-wannabe to a jaded "widow" who has reverted to speaking Spanish. Her molestation by The Jets is terrifying, her abandonment of hope deeply moving. She looks to me to be award-worthy.
Unfortunately, I didn't feel that any of the gang members made an impact acting-wise, nor were any extremely weak. There was not enough credible violent tension between George Akram and Cody Green. Also, Joey Haro as Chino was perhaps not as menacing as he might have been, but I think the climactic scene in which he avenges Nardo's death by shooting Tony has some other staging issue working against it—people laughed after the gun shot. José linked that to Chino's physicality, but I got the impression the sudden loud bang startled some audience members whose reactions caused nervous laughter, and/or that the scene was too rushed and did not feel pregnant with doom, as it should. Maria's handling of the gun and her asking how to use it also drew some chuckles, but laughter should be the furthest thing from any sensible theater-goer's mind at that point, so I'm hoping Mr. Laurents noted this and will figure it out.
Choose your partners—carefully.
I think what keeps me from having been more swept up by the musical is that despite Mr. Laurents's best efforts, the only elements that truly connect are the most deeply romantic—"Tonight" is spectacularly dreamy, the fantasy-infused "Somewhere is a pleasure and "Maria" is correctly infused with engaging longing. The tougher stuff seems quaint—Jets call each other buddy boy and have war councils, juvenile delinquents revel in their badness by not-so-dirty dancing.
This failure of the gang members to be convincingly tough is most prevalent in "Gee, Officer Krupke." The number is very funny due to an all-out effort by Curtis Holbrook (loved his performance in Xanadu), reminding me of "There Is Nothing Like A Dame" from South Pacific. However, I would criticize the conception of this performance in that the manic energy should not be all hoots and hollers; part of what these young men are singing about is not just comedy, but is their rage at being pigeon-holed as hoodlums by society, the cops and maybe even, it might seem they'd believe, their own DNA.
Overall, I still recommend West Side Story because it's beautiful, complicated, challenging and as artistic as anything being done for the first time over 50 years. West Side Story '09 should serve to remind Hugh Jackman that while musicals may be back, there is no reason to celebrate that fact if they must be back in the form of Mamma Mia and High School Musical 3.
(As a treat, check out rare images from WSS's first run in the '50s by clicking here.)