Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 7, 2011
Gang wars. Murder in the street. Intolerance of immigrants.
“West Side Story” may be a 50 year old musical, but its themes could’ve been ripped from yesterday’s news. Of course, its source material has had a pretty good run, too. That would be “Romeo and Juliet,” 4-plus centuries and still going strong. Whether it’s feuding Renaissance Italian families or Anglo vs. Puerto Rican New York street gangs, the tragedy centers on star-crossed lovers, attracted across the divide, trying to bridge the local rift.
In 2009, a new revival of the show, directed by the original librettist, opened on Broadway to generally positive reviews. The update that 91 year-old Arthur Laurents brought to the mix was the addition of Spanish dialogue and song translations for the Puerto Rican Sharks. Five months after the debut, a good deal of the Spanish was deleted. But a lot still remains, offering yet another layer of authenticity. The original choreography was retained, the brilliantly dynamic creations of Jerome Robbins, which won him a Tony Award for the original stage version and a special Oscar for the 1961 screen adaptation.
Now, along comes the national touring production, yet one more step removed from the original, with David Saint re-creating the direction and Joey McKneely replicating the choreography. This is one of the great American groundbreaking musicals, and it’s the music and dance that leave the strongest impression. Leonard Bernstein’s score, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ dazzling choreography steal the show. The 17-piece orchestra, under the baton of music director John O’Neill, sounds splendid. The dancers in the 32-member cast leap and soar with breathtaking athleticism, though most look more like roughed-up choirboys than tough street kids.
It seems the casting directors were more interested in the dancing than the singing; that certainly wasn’t true of the Broadway revival, which won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
But on tour, two of the male leads – Riff, chief honcho of the Jets; and Tony, the Polish romantic — have weak and unpleasant voices. They’re offset, if not overpowered, by golden-voiced Ali Ewoldt as the love interest, Maria; and energetic, charismatic Michelle Aravena as Anita, who can also dance up a storm.
So the signature love songs, “Maria” and “Tonight,” fail to move the audience or stop the show. The comical numbers: “Gee, Officer Krupke ,” “ America ” and even the bilingualized “I Feel Pretty ,” are far more satisfying. In another fascinating modernization, the tomboy Jet wannabe, Anybodys , sings “Somewhere,” about there being “somewhere a place for us,” which makes it ring like a gay anthem.
So, strengths and weaknesses, pluses and minuses. A flawed production overall, but certainly worth seeing, for the glorious invention that it is. And a great way to introduce young people to the joy and relevance of musical theater.
The national touring production of “West Side Story” continues through Sunday at the Civic Theatre downtown.
©2011 PAT LAUNER