It snaps, it crackles, it pops! It surges with a roar, its energy and sheer life undiminished by the years.
I'm talking about Leonard Bernstein's music, mind you. If there were a Mount Rushmore for Broadway scores, "West Side Story" would be carved front and center. When the "Prologue" blasts out of the pit, it sends an immediate thrill down the audience's collective spine.
We've lived with this sound since 1957 it's part of our DNA. And for good reason.
The work of Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is 75 percent of the reason this often-frustrating revival gets three stars: You can't underestimate the pleasure of hearing those songs played at full volume by a 30-piece orchestra.
Add Jerome Robbins' iconic choreography (reproduced here by Joey McKneely), and you have lightning in a bottle.
Yet at least one person thinks the aforementioned elements aren't the point: Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book back in 1957 and directs this production, has snipped that "the original was about dancing and singing."
Clearly he thought that not enough attention's been paid to his own contribution over the years. So he set out to boost the narrative "Romeo and Juliet" transposed to New York gangs in the late 1950s in his revival. Because who wants to see "West Side Story" for the dancing and singing, right?
Perhaps emboldened by last season's successful revival of "Gypsy," Laurents made a daring move: He went bilingual. Now, the Puerto Rican Sharks, played by Latinos, deliver many of their lines (translated by "In the Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) in Spanish. The intent was to adjust the balance with the Jets, who've always tended to dominate the proceedings.
It works. Furthermore, regardless of what language they speak, these sharply dressed Sharks come across as smarter, more dignified, more interesting than their rivals, whose dirt-streaked faces and muscular grunts are those of dumb thugs. If Laurents aimed to dramatize prejudice, he's certainly succeeded.
On the other hand, he's also (unwittingly?) created a new imbalance that lessens the overall dramatic impact. It doesn't help that, for the most part, the actors playing the Jets stay grounded while the ones playing the Sharks take off.
This is painfully embodied by the central lovers, Tony and Maria: 21-year-old Argentine cutie Josefina Scaglione does her mighty best but she can achieve only so much, paired as she is with the handsome plank of wood known as Matt Cavenaugh. They may grope each other constantly, but they spark no heat.
Worse, his bleaty vibrato and park-and-bark delivery lay waste to "Maria."
Cody Green barely registers as Tony's main man, Riff, while George Akram brings determination to Sharks leader Bernardo. In a league of her own is Karen Olivo, who all but steals the show as Anita. She's not a perfect dancer, but she attacks her role with a convincing mix of vitality and enraged pride; her final scene, when she's assaulted by the Jets, is simply gut-wrenching.
What do we remember of this production, then? Laurents may not like the answer, but it's precisely what the original was about: the singing and the dancing. "West Side Story" had not been seen on Broadway in almost three decades. For a new generation to discover it live is almost good enough.
Even when they’re flashing switchblades and kicking people in the ribs, the teenage hoodlums who maraud through Arthur Laurents’s startlingly sweet new revival of “West Side Story” seem like really nice kids. When a pure-voiced boy soprano (Nicholas Barasch) shows up to perform the musical’s banner anthem, the aching “Somewhere,” it feels like the manifestation of some inner angel who always lurks beneath the surface of the angry adolescents onstage.
Youth has always been the engine of this epochal musical from 1957, created by one of the most talented teams in showbiz history: Mr. Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (score), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (director and choreographer). But usually it’s the scary, adrenaline-stoked energy of youth that sets the tone and rhythms of the show.
In the production that opened Thursday night at the Palace Theater, which lovingly replicates Mr. Robbins’s balletic choreography, what prevails is a tenderhearted awareness of the naked vulnerability of being young and trapped in an urban jungle. Half a century ago middle-class adult theatergoers were shocked and appalled by the brutality of the ethnic gang warfare of “West Side Story.” (The first sentence of Brooks Atkinson’s review in The New York Times said that “the material is horrifying.”) This time audiences — the grown-ups, anyway — are more likely to respond with feelings of parental protectiveness.
Age would seem to have brought a new detachment and gentleness to the famously feisty Mr. Laurents, now 91, who last year triumphantly reconceived (in a less forgiving vein) “Gypsy,” another show for which he did the book. He has said that with “West Side Story” he hoped to achieve an authentic grittiness that the theater of the 1950s didn’t allow. (He has also had many of the lines and lyrics translated into Spanish, an only partly successful experiment.)
Yet the show seems haloed in a softening mist of compassion, turning its sidewalk Romeo and Juliet — and most of its young characters — into imperiled babes in the woods. And as designed by James Youmans, the mean streets of Manhattan exude a rainbow lyricism, even in inky darkness. David C. Woolard’s costumes, as Peter Marks previously observed in The Washington Post, bring to mind the color-coordinated peppiness of Gap ads. Mr. Laurents has exchanged insolence for innocence and, as with most such bargains, there are dividends and losses.
The best news is how newly credible and affecting the show’s central love story becomes in this context, with Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione as the doomed Tony, an idealistic Polish-American, and the virginal Puerto Rican Maria. As Mr. Sondheim has observed, “There are no characters in ‘West Side,’ nor can there be.” They are by necessity, he said, “one-dimensional characters for a melodrama.”
This has been particularly and irritatingly true of Tony and Maria, who, despite being given some of the most gorgeous love songs ever, have usually registered as a pretty pair of tear-stained paper dolls. (Exhibit A: Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in the wildly popular 1961 film adaptation.) For me revisiting “West Side Story” has always meant tolerating the woodenness of its lovers to get to the good stuff: the score, the kinetic fireworks of the dancing and the brash vibrancy of Maria’s best friend, Anita (played here by Karen Olivo, who delivers big-time).
But this “West Side Story” is most enthralling when Tony and Maria cross the ethnic divide to pursue the pipe dream of happiness together. Mr. Cavenaugh (on Broadway in “Urban Cowboy” and “Grey Gardens”) and Ms. Scaglione (a 21-year-old newcomer from Argentina) fulfill the starry-eyed obligations of playing young folks struck by a love that arrives like a lightning bolt, propelling them into an enchanted, oblivious world of purple declarations of passion. But they also provide specific and surprising shadings of character that make Tony and Maria at least partly responsible for their fate instead of passive victims.
Mr. Cavenaugh’s Tony, a former member of the territorial Jets gang, has a goofy, woolgathering and slightly shy side that helps explain his subsequent ill-advised behavior. His singing is more tender, wondering and introspective than that of most Tonys, with less of the regulation leading-man virility.
And Ms. Scaglione’s stunningly natural Maria — freshly arrived from Puerto Rico for an arranged marriage with a member of her brother’s gang, the Sharks — has the confidence associated with young women who are beautiful, willful and unacquainted with sorrow. Her voice may be as golden as honey, and she may be as naïve as her boyfriend, but this Maria is not exclusively sweet. You sense that she’s the one who’s really in charge, and for the first time I could imagine what Tony and Maria’s marriage might be like.
Mr. Cavenaugh aside, it’s the women who rule here. Ms. Olivo’s worldly Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo (George Akram), Maria’s brother, is a stunner, full of citrusy zest and acerbity. The role of Anita (created on stage by Chita Rivera and on film by Rita Moreno) has always been the show’s most fully drawn, and the right actress can steal the show whenever she steps onstage. Ms. Olivo obliges, but without overdoing the Latin spitfire clichés. And leading her fellow Shark girls in the rousing “America,” that great sardonic hymn to living in the United States, she takes the production to a level of pure physical exhilaration it never quite achieves otherwise.
The execution of that number embodies what Anita says about how the Shark boys dance, “like they want to get rid of something quick.” Yet it’s only when the male ensemble members are joined by their female counterparts — most notably in the electric “Dance at the Gym” sequence — that they come fully to life.
Joey McKneely, for the most part, has reproduced Mr. Robbins’s original work with reverent exactitude. Anyone who knows the film, on which Mr. Robbins served as choreographer and co-director, will recognize the celebrated street ballet of a prologue. Here the gang members, led by Cody Green (as Riff, the head of the Jets) and Mr. Akram, make all the right moves, but you feel no internal combustion going on, no hormone-fueled hostility forever on the verge of eruption.
These guys are like suburban kids slumming in the city for the day, and you expect their parents to show up in station wagons to take them home at the end of the rumble. (Reactions to this approach are sure to vary. “They’re cute,” I said sullenly at intermission to the woman I was with. “They’re cute,” she cooed dotingly in response.) It’s a sensibility that deprives both the finger-snapping “Cool” and the satiric “Officer Krupke” of their necessary anger. And whenever Ms. Olivo appeared to mingle with members of either gang, I would think, “Oh, good, a grown-up.”
The real grown-ups in “West Side Story” (there are four) have always been stick figures — villains or well-intentioned, uncomprehending fools who make the parents in the “Rebel Without a Cause” seem like Eugene O’Neill creations. This production does not make them any more believable. Though Mr. Laurents has tinkered with his original dialogue, a lot of it retains the stiff signboard poetry of socially enlightened mid-20th-century American movies and plays.
Having the Sharks speak to one another in Spanish effectively underscores the sense of cultural estrangement that the show demands. But since music is supposedly a universal language (and since the Jets and Sharks often sing the same melodies), do we have to have key, plot-propelling songs translated (by Lin-Manuel Miranda) into Spanish as well? It’s fine for those of us who know the show inside out, but English-speaking newcomers may have difficulty following the second act. On the other hand, the deliciously girly body language in “Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”), performed by Maria and a giggly set of friends, requires no bilingual dictionary.
Bernstein’s score, gloriously rendered here under the supervision of Patrick Vaccariello, remains a ravishment of modernist dissonance and smashing schmaltz, as irresistible as Puccini. When Mr. Cavenaugh and Ms. Scaglione sing the duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” it’s hard not to melt into sweet, empathetic adolescent agony. First love may ultimately be only a matter of biologically programmed impulses. But the emotions it inspires, as this Tony and Maria remind us so poignantly, can transform the erotic into truly Edenic innocence.
Few shows traverse the depths of joy and sorrow reached in West Side Story. Like Romeo and Juliet, the play that inspired it, the musical sets the already extreme emotions generated by first love against the irrational forces of hate.
The tale of a doomed romance between the sister of a Puerto Rican gang leader and the co-founder of a posse of all-American hoodlums was pretty hot stuff when West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957. But the key to its visceral power has always been Leonard Bernstein's score, a spine-tingling olio of jazz, Latin and classical textures and rapturous melodies that reveal as much about Tony and Maria's feelings as the wonder-struck lyrics provided by a very young Stephen Sondheim.
Those elements are very much intact in the new revival (* * * out of four) that opened Thursday at the Palace Theatre. But there is a nagging self-consciousness here that clearly owes much to director Arthur Laurents. Laurents also wrote the original book and is determined that this production enhance its authenticity and fair-mindedness.
To that end, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the young creator and star of In the Heights, last season's Tony Award-winning musical focusing on modern-day Latin Americans in upper Manhattan, was enlisted to translate parts of the libretto and some of Sondheim's lyrics into Spanish. Certainly, most people are familiar enough with the basic story and songs so that when Maria sings Siento Hermosa instead of I Feel Pretty, we get her drift.
Still, the translations can seem gratuitous and at times patronizing. No art form requires or rewards the willing suspension of disbelief more than musical theater; we don't need to hear Anita, the sassy girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo, sing A Boy Like That en español to know that her emotions have been piqued. Similarly, listening to Bernardo's gang, the Sharks, roar about an upcoming rumble with the rival Jets in their native tongue doesn't shed any fresh light on their perspective.
West Side Story didn't need a culturally correct face-lift. While the film adaptation has its cartoonish aspects, as Laurents has duly noted, the musical is and always has been fundamentally anti-xenophobic. We root not for the Jets or the Sharks but for Tony and Maria, who want to reject the fear and small-mindedness surrounding them.
It's certainly not hard to root for Matt Cavenaugh's handsome, likable Tony, or the angelic but warmly coquettish Maria of Josefina Scaglione, whose sterling lyric soprano is perfectly suited to the role. Karen Olivo's witty, fiery Anita is another asset; she may not be the best dancer to ever tackle the role, but Joey McKneely's reproduction of Jerome Robbins' choreography lets her shine and the others soar.
To a point, that is. The irony is that Laurents' attempts to be inclusive and grittily realistic — the final scene in particular suffers for his insistence on technical accuracy — make the show seem no fresher, only a tiny bit less magical.
The consummate craftsmanship of "West Side Story," with its matchless ability to weave a solemn narrative through music and dance, still dazzles after more than 50 years. Leonard Bernstein's majestic score, in particular, is undiminished, shifting fluidly between blasts of syncopated brass fueled by testosterone and rage, and some of the most achingly beautiful expressions of love ever sung. So it's rewarding to report that after nearly three decades' absence from Broadway, this masterwork has been given the revival it deserves. Under the knowing direction of Arthur Laurents, the 1957 show remains both a brilliant evocation of its period and a timeless tragedy of disharmony and hate.
Following his emotionally charged "Gypsy" revival last season, book writer Laurents has again dusted off one of his classic shows for a new generation, remaining faithful to the original conception while adding new textures to the drama. Most notable innovation is the choice to translate (via "In the Heights" composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) much of the Puerto Rican characters' dialogue and songs into Spanish. This heightens the division in the turf war between rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets, and is far less artificial than forcing people to convey extreme passion or grief in their second language.
Audiences with no knowledge of Spanish will hardly feel adrift, however, in that the stakes in this urban "Romeo and Juliet" update are rendered more lucid by the dramatic integrity of the staging. And the feelings of lovestruck joy conveyed in "I Feel Pretty," or of bitter sorrow dueling with the conviction of the heart in "A Boy Like That," all but transcend words.
The show's book has always been secondary to its score, but Laurents efficiently underlines the paradox that the Jets, so threatened by the encroachment of the Hispanic Sharks on their white neighborhood, are only a generation or two evolved from being the kind of immigrant trash they despise. And having their racism amplified through the voice of authority of a sleazy cop (Steve Bassett) further darkens the Shakespearean canvas of warring factions.
From the opening notes of Bernstein's antsy "Prologue" and the first images of original director-choreographer Jerome Robbins' iconic moves, with finger-snapping, low-hunching gang members darting in and out of tenement windows and off fire escapes, "West Side Story" comes at you with a familiar rush. But any sense of kitschiness that might arise from watching a dance style that's been imitated and parodied everywhere from Gap commercials to Michael Jackson videos to "Flight of the Conchords" is soon erased by the bristling confidence and economy of the storytelling. Characters, mood and conflict are established in minutes with barely a word spoken.
As is often the case with "West Side Story," finding a male cast able to meet the balletic demands of Robbins' choreography (reproduced by Joey McKneely) while convincingly portraying rough-and-tumble greaseball gang members is a challenge. The squeaky-cleanness of the guys here does take some getting used to, but the agility and youthfulness of the male ensemble soon outweighs those concerns. Cody Green is suitably intense as take-charge Jets leader Riff, Curtis Holbrook channels tightly wound aggression and volatility into his lieutenant Action, and George Akram's razor-sharp moves and natural magnetism stand out as top Shark Bernardo.
The trickiest role is romantic lead Tony, who is required to scale impassioned heights while retaining traces of the toughness of a former gang member. Matt Cavenaugh ("Grey Gardens," "A Catered Affair") may lack some dramatic heft, but his singing has a sweetness and vulnerability that make the central love story soar.
His invaluable accomplice in that department is Josefina Scaglione, an enchanting young Argentine discovery making a knockout Broadway debut as Maria. Combining innocence with real backbone, her tremendously moving Maria has her feet planted far more firmly on the ground than Tony's; she's swept up by love but always mindful of its consequences. Scaglione's operatically trained soprano, with its crystalline high notes, blends superbly with Cavanaugh's vocals to make "Tonight" and the hymn-like "One Hand, One Heart" sound more exquisite than ever.
Without detracting from the success of a drama that revolves largely around the animus of guys who fight and dance "like they have to get rid of something quick," the soul of this staging is the women.
The raw purity of Scaglione's Maria is countered by Karen Olivo's equally nuanced Anita, a tempestuous spitfire who gets the show's best number in "America." Responding to Jennifer Sanchez's paean to their homeland with withering scorn, Olivo nails Stephen Sondheim's witty lyrics, with their tart dismissal of old-country romanticism, and Robbins' exhilarating dance explosion, working her skirt and hair like weaponry. But beneath the savvy, smoldering exterior, her Anita is a woman humbled by love, enabling her to respond to Maria's needs even through her own grief. Olivo is especially heart-wrenching in the near-rape scene in which Anita attempts to warn Tony he's in danger, a moment still startling for its dramatic realism in a musical context.
The show's high points are too many to mention, but the populous "Dance at the Gym" is an electrifying centerpiece. Kickstarted by a whimsical fantasy note as ropes of flowers descend from the flies, the number then moves into a propulsive mambo and from there into the delicacy of Tony and Maria, isolated in their love-at-first-sight minuet. The fatal rumble that follows also is powerfully staged, preceded by masterful merging of five different perspectives in the multipart "Tonight" reprise. When designer James Youmans' highway overpass looms into view and a wire fence descends to place the entire scene in a cage, the escalation of tension is thrilling.
The physical production is impressive on all counts, from Youmans' striking, stylized sets to David C. Woolard's flavorful period costumes to Howell Binkley's bold lighting, with its supple shifts from celestial planes to brooding semi-darkness to a blinding utopian vision for "Somewhere."
But the true stars of the production are Robbins' graceful, endlessly expressive choreography and Bernstein's score, which still sounds bracingly modern a half-century after it was first heard.
Sure, one could quibble about the odd placement after Riff's death of the show's sole comic number, "Gee, Officer Krupke" (the song was effectively flipped with the first act's "Cool" in the 1961 movie). But every one of these songs communicates something vital and urgent, whether it's solidarity or love, anticipation or rapture, loss or hope. Performed with a deft balance of percussive fury and caressing gentleness by a robust orchestra under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello, the music is a primal force. It reaches emotional apices more often found in opera than musical theater.