Over the weekend, I flew down to Richmond, VA to spend some time with my old friend and colleague Phaedra Hise and her 13-year-old daughter, Lily, the latter of which is has been bitten pretty badly by the stage bug. In fact, she's so obsessed with musical theater that Phaedra's husband Bill has joked that I must be Lily's real father. (Hey, stranger things have happened, but I think Bill can sleep pretty comfortably with the knowledge that that's about as likely as a revival of Lestat.)
It was a lovely weekend all around, but of course we had to take Lily to see a show. Fortunately, the Pre-Broadway engagement of West Side Story was still playing at the National Theater in Washington, DC, so Phaedra and I ventured north to the capital to take Lily and a friend to see it. A good time was had by all.
There's been a lot of press and blog chatter about this production, particularly about how original librettist and current director Arthur Laurents was hoping to accomplish at least three things with this revival:
- To make the gang members credibly gang-like
- To bring out the raw sexuality of two teenagers in lust
- To successfully translate significant portions of the show into Spanish, particularly when there are only Latino characters on stage
So, has Laurents achieved these goals? In short:
- Not at all
- Sort of
- Not really
But it's a testament to the quality of the original piece itself, to Leonard Bernstein's outstanding score, and to Jerome Robbins' brilliant choreography, expertly recreated here by Joey McKneely, that the production succeeds despite Laurents' unrealized ambitions.
Laurents starts the show off with a slow and sinister prologue, then seems to forget his directive to make the gang tension and violence believable. But the trouble here really starts with the casting: there's not a single member of the Jets or the Sharks whom I'd be a-scared of in a dark alley. Street hoodlums these are not. That's one of the constant challenges of West Side Story: you gotta have guys who can dance, but often the best dancers aren't exactly the most masculine or intimidating of men. Take for instance Cody Green as Riff, who's a terrific dancer, but hasn't a whit of street toughness, nor any spark on stage at all, for that matter. The only gang member who comes even close to the requisite grit is Curtis Holbrook as Action, although I couldn't help thinking of him in his skimpy tunic as Thalia in Xanadu.
Fortunately, the central pair of lovers are reasonably well cast. Matt Cavenaugh (A Catered Affair, Grey Gardens) is terrific as Tony, bringing vocal restraint and emotional honesty to the most important male role. Josefina Scaglione as Maria, a casting discovery from Argentina, seems a bit green. Her voice is sweet but thin, and her acting is at times quite touching, at other times phony and forced. As for the raw sexuality that Laurents promised, it wasn't in evidence at the performance I saw, although Cavenaugh and Scaglione had a frisky, playful quality, and were genuinely moving during the famous balcony sequence.
The strongest member of the cast was Karen Olivo as Anita. I wasn't a fan of Olivo's performance as Vanessa in In The Heights, but in retrospect it may have been the underwritten nature of the role that irked me. Here, Olivo is the best thing on stage, giving Anita the sass and grit that many of her fellow cast mates were sorely in need of.
And then there's the Spanish. Laurents brought in Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer, lyricist and star of In the Heights, to provide Spanish translations for quite a significant portion of the show. The songs and surrounding scenes for "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" are entirely in Spanish. I've gone back and forth on this, but ultimately I think this was a mistake. The Spanish works OK when it's woven into the dialog before "America," or as part of the big ensemble numbers like the "Tonight" quintet. But I found myself tuning out during the extended Spanish sequences, when, alas, my three years of high school Spanish failed to emerge from the depths of my long-term memory. Plus, Miranda's translated lyrics don't always scan well with the music, which is a huge pet peeve of mine.
But, again, the score and the dancing carry the show, which in its essential form is almost a masterpiece. Why almost? Well, I've never been a fan of the "Somewhere" ballet, which was wisely cut from the movie version of "West Side Story." It's basically a fantasy ballet in which Maria and Tony dream of a place where they can be happy together, and where the Jets and the Sharks and, yes, even Anybodys, can live in peace and harmony. I have always found it unbearably twee, and this production hasn't changed my mind. I must admit that, when the revival's ballet first started, I almost found myself buying into it. But here, Laurents has given the "Somewhere" solo to a young boy, a new character referred to in the Playbill as "Kiddo." I guess he's supposed to represent innocence, a sort of tabula rasa, before society has inflicted its stereotypes upon his psyche. ("You've got to be taught to hate and fear...") Whatever, it doesn't work, and it only made this sappy scene even more syrupy.
So, overall, this is a very professional production of a nearly perfect show. Laurents hasn't quite (yet?) achieved what he had hoped with this revival, but the quality of the piece itself, as well as the talent of the people on stage, make it a must-see event. West Side Story begins performances at the Palace Theater in New York City on February 23rd toward a March opening. I say, get your tickets now.