Review: West Side Story. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Original choreography by Jerome Robbins and reproduced by Joey McKneely. Directed by David Saint. With Ross Lekites, Evy Ortiz, Michelle Aravena, Drew Foster, and German Santiago. Now through January 15 at The Paramount.
It’s the brand spanking new year and the first touring Broadway show has already hit town. Broadway Across America has brought the national touring company of the acclaimed 2009 revival of the classic musical “West Side Story” to Seattle featuring a “freshening” courtesy of director Arthur Laurents who wrote the original book of the musical in 1957. The very familiar story of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was the basis for the musical which replaced the dueling Montagues and the Capulets and the star crossed young lovers of Romeo and Juliet with the dueling Hell’s Kitchen street gangs the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican) and their own opposite sides of the fence lovers, Tony and Maria. The original was an arty hit, with its commanding score by Leonard Bernstein, witty lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and dazzling dance/ballet sequences from director/choreographer Jerome Robbins but the musical didn’t really become an international phenomenon until the premiere of the Oscar winning film version in 1961. The soundtrack to that film was also a huge hit, and the world’s love affair for those songs: “Maria”, “Somewhere”, “I Feel Pretty”, ” America”, and “Tonight” began in earnest.
But, Arthur Laurents detested the film. In an interview with the Washington Post during rehearsals for the 2009 revival:
“I thought the whole thing was terrible,” he says. “Day-Glo costumes and fake accents! Boys with dyed hair and color-coded jeans doing jetes down real streets!”
Laurents also thought it time for the musical to be freshened lest it become a museum piece. For the revival, he trimmed some dialogue and took the bold step of having much of the dialogue and the songs sung by the Puerto Rican Jets and translating it into Spanish, thus making the show more realistic and giving the Jets a stronger presence in the show. (Subsequently, some of the English dialogue and lyrics was restored; currently the Spanish speaking characters primarily speak in English with some Spanish and a few songs still contain a considerable amount of Spanish.)
Audiences and critics both responded well to the revival and awards were won and the “West Side Story” for a new generation has set up shop at The Paramount for a six day run ending Sunday, January 15. And, the question on our minds, for musical theater fans in general and “West Side Story” fans in particular: Is this “new and improved” version of a very well loved classic worth checking out?
MORE after the JUMP!
“West Side Story 2012” is a beautifully designed and produced show. The justly praised sets, costumes, lighting, sound, and staging from the Broadway revival are all present. The show looks beautiful. (Though an especially noisy set change was a tiny bit off putting…apparently the wheels that move the “balcony/fire escape” into place could use a little WD-40…) And, the show SOUNDS beautiful as well, (except for the squeaky set) with a cast of exceptional young singers led by leads Ross Lekites (Tony), Evy Ortiz (Maria), Michelle Aravena (Anita) and German Santiago as Bernardo. This show is full of powerful vocalists with especially strong and confident work by Mr. Lekites and Ms Ortiz. “West Side Story” is a tough show to sing…this isn’t bubblegum pop songs; it’s complicated and complex music from Leonard Bernstein. Both leads do beautiful work vocally.
But, I do quibble a bit with the acting. It’s actually not so much the acting, as it’s the lack of chemistry between the two leads. I never bought that they were two passionate love at first sight young lovers. There’s a lack of passion between the two that’s a trifle dull. Both Mr. Lekites and Ms Ortiz are cute as can be, but they seem more like good friends that eternal soul mates; I had a hard time believing that their love was so strong that Maria could instantly forgive Tony for having murdered her brother Bernardo. There’s not enough passion and heartache between these two. “West Side Story” should have you a bit misty eyed by the closing curtain. I didn’t feel that, in this production.
To be honest, I’m going to put a bit more blame on Mr. Lekites than Ms Ortiz and it’s not really his fault, I just wouldn’t have automatically cast him as Tony in a production of “West Side Story”. He has a gorgeously big and beautiful voice, but physically and emotionally the actor seems better suited for a production of “Oklahoma” or “The Book of Mormon”. Mr. Lekites is a big, strapping, healthy looking, corn fed boy and doesn’t seem very authentically New York. He seems more like your average grad student at Brigham Young University preparing for his first mission. He’s a bit too nice and pleasant; Tony is a good kid but he also needs a bit of an edge to him otherwise his anger motivated revenge murder of Bernardo makes no sense. He wouldn’t ever kill anyone…he’d leave a note on their windshield if he was pissed off.
I did enjoy the work of Michelle Aravena as Anita, but that’s not a surprise. Audiences always love Anita and the actress who plays her. She has great songs, and great moments, both comedic and tragic, and she gets to twirl her skirts a lot. Anita is a natural crowd pleaser. I also enjoyed Gizel Jimenez as Rosalia, the girl who yearns to return to Puerto Rico in “America”. She had a lot of stage presence and great comic timing and held her own against the pro-America Anita. Another crowd favorite was the rather fey chaperone at the dance, “Glad Hand” played by Stephen DeRosa who gave the small role a lot of robust, authentic New Yawk flavor as he rather vainly tries to keep the rival gangs in check. It’s the only adult role in the show that’s not a complete bastard or downer, and added some welcome levity to the show.
Secondly, I’m going to quibble with the “new approach” to this “West Side Story”. I understand and even appreciate the desire to use Spanish as the main mode of communication for the Puerto Rican characters because it IS more authentic but the production eventually copped out from the majority use of Spanish for these characters to a rather annoying “Spanglish” with the characters saying a line or two in Spanish, then some in English, then back to Spanish and so on and so on. It’s not authentic; only distracting. I personally wish they had kept MORE of the Spanish and used Super Titles so non-Spanish speaking audiences would understand the dialogue.
Thirdly, Arthur Laurents wanted to make the show more real, yet not much of the actual dialogue changed in the revival and as the original author of the material, Mr. Laurents certainly could have made some changes. I’m speaking specifically of the show’s lack of “dirty” language. Originally the show’s creators wanted to use some swear words; obviously real teen aged gang members in Hell’s Kitchen are going to throw around a few “Son of a Bitches”, “Goddamns” and even a “Fuck You” or two. But, that wasn’t done on the musical stage in 1957, which is why the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number does NOT end with, “Officer Krupke: Fuck You!”
And, I’m not saying that “West Side Story” needs to turn into Potty Mouth Story but the fake, hep, Hollywood street talk used in “West Side Story” has always seemed forced and phony with the result that the musical has always had some unfortunate similarities with the old Bowery Boy movies of the 1940s. It’s just so…fake. The Jets in particular have seemed like a goofy gang of doofs from an old Scooby Doo cartoon. (But, I will note that one interesting and realistic aspect of this revival is that the casting and use of Spanish has made the show more socially accurate. The Jets don’t come off very well and their resistance to the arrival of the Sharks/Puerto Ricans is very obviously racially motivated. The Jets are white sons of immigrants who object to the presence of the exotic Latin newcomers in their hood not because of their language but because of their dark skin. It’s starker and darker than previous takes on the material and the Jets seem less cute and more menacing, especially during their attack on Anita. They might think it’s cool to be a Jet, but in reality, they’re not far from KKK territory.)
Finally, I’m going to commit a cardinal sin and propose something shocking: I want someone to eventually do a major revival of “West Side Story” and NOT use the iconic and brilliant original choreography by Jerome Robbins. Yes, I know that is practically sacrilegious and yes, I also revere that ground breaking and beautiful work, but I think it’s time for a fresh look at movement in “West Side Story” (and, other shows as well). As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Laurents had expressed worry about old shows turning into museum pieces. To me, “West Side Story” DOES feel a bit like a museum piece despite some shiny new clothes. Personally, I think most musicals should be taken out of their institutional moth balls and given major overhauls. Move songs around; dump some of the duds; change dialogue; add new and different choreography. Make it new and fresh again. Sometimes, old houses need more than a coat of fresh paint. Some houses need a major remodel from time to time. Basically, “West Side Story 2012” added a new mailbox and called it a day. I’m happy that Mr. Laurents, one of the great men of the theater, got to make some changes to this show. The acclaimed writer and director worked on this version of “WSS” at the age of 90 and died last year aged 93. I just wish he had taken some of his revisions a step further.
And, purists will completely disagree with my radical ideas, and that’s fine. To each his own. I liked this production of “West Side Story” but I didn’t love it. It’s lovely to look at it and it has some beautiful voices in it and some very attractive and able young dancers. Old school musical theater fans and “West Side Story” fans will probably love this show and that’s fine, too. I just think this particular production could use a bit more fire, and a bit more emotion and a bit more realism. Otherwise, it’s just a two hour long Gap ad with attractive young people singing and dancing and wearing affordably priced active wear.