Thursday, May 05, 2011

West Side Story

A new version of WEST SIDE STORY is at Palace

In the fall of 1957, I had a mind blowing experience. I saw the newly opened Broadway production of WEST SIDE STORY. At the time, all I knew about the show was that it was based on ROMEO AND JULIET and it had opened to positive reviews two days before. I left the show with aching hands from clapping and clapping and clapping during the extended curtain calls. I became a WEST SIDE STORY junkie, seeing the show time after time on the Great White Way before it closed, as well as many other stagings since!

The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, starred Larry Kert as Tony, Carol Lawrence as Maria and Chita Rivera as Anita. That staging ran for 732 performances, toured, and then returned to Broadway in 1960 for another 253 performances. Of course, I saw it in its return engagement.

In 2007, Arthur Laurents decided it was time to adjust the script. His “new” WSS opened on March 19, 2009. The production wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the English libretto. The show had an attitude adjustment, more serious, with some of the lightness eliminated. The characters were made more authentic. The choreography was altered and the orchestrations adjusted.

The music for WEST SIDE STORY is by Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It is set in New York in the mid-1950s and centers on the rivalry between two teenage street gangs. The Sharks came from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, are a collection of white working-class hoodlums. Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, with disastrous results.

This is not a light hearted show. It is a musical with a serious theme, sophisticated music, extensive dancing and an investigation of social problems. The memorable score includes Something's Coming, Maria, America, Somewhere, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, and A Boy Like That.

Interestingly, the WSS on stage at the Palace Theatre has little resemblance to the show that was originally planned. Historical legend indicates that in the late 1940s Jerome Robbins approached Bernstein and Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical adaptation of ROMEO AND JULIET. He proposed that the plot focus on the conflict between an Italian American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, during the Easter–Passover season, and be titled EAST SIDE STORY. Eventually it was perceived that a different tack was needed and the present theme and title emerged.

The touring production, directed by Arthur Laurents, has many high points and some effects that didn’t work so well.

On the positive side, Joey McKneely’s reproduced and reinterpreted choreography is dynamic and well executed. The interspersing of Spanish, used when the Puerto Ricans speak to each other, or are upset, is a fine realistic touch. The sets work well. The costumes allow for stylistic character identities. (The Jets’ orange bandanas is a clever gang identifier.) The cast is generally young and fit the long established images of the characters.

Michelle Aravena sizzles as Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. German Santiago was on target as Bernardo. The role of Maria is triple cast. On opening night Ali Ewoldt portrayed the role. Though her acting was on target, especially in establishing a strong emotional bond with Cary Tedder, portraying Tony that night, her high pitched voice and carriage made her almost too sophisticated. Tedder, has a nice vocal sound and a acting believability, but, as with most of the Jets, he was too boy next door in looks and manners. These are inner city New Yorkers hoods, not soccer playing suburban kids.

The show ended abruptly, before the emotional impact of what had transpired could fester, followed by a quick curtain raise for the curtain call, which added to a feeling of “okay, we’re done, now go home!” Why the original ending in which the gangs blend to help carry the now dead Tony off-stage was dropped, I can’t figure out.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: WEST SIDE STORY is near the top of my list of all-time great musicals. I liked many of the adjustments that have been made in the script (except for the ending), the adjustments in the musical scoring, and the newly interpreted choreography, but I don’t think the production I saw on opening night, was the show at its finest. Many of the audience comments I heard on the way out of the theatre, echoed my thoughts.