Saturday, January 10, 2009

Review of 'West Side Story'

Last week, I posted an interview with actor/dancer Cody Green, who plays Riff in the new production of West Side Story, currently in a pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre in Washington, and I promised that I would later post a review of the show.

Here it is, as submitted to The Metro Herald for publication in its next edition:

History Repeating:
Una Nueva ‘West Side Story’ at the National Theatre
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

While in London ten years ago, I saw a revival of West Side Story at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

During the first act, Katie Knight-Adams, who was playing Maria, was having trouble with her voice. During the interval it was announced that she would be replaced in the second act by her understudy, Celia Graham. An amusing moment took place about two minutes into the second act when Rosalia says of Maria: "She looks somehow different." Laughter rumbled through the audience, which evoked puzzlement at first, then barely constrained smiles from the actors -- that line had been delivered hundreds of times in the past, and never before got a laugh. But that day it had a special meaning.

The line has special meaning, too, with the new production of West Side Story now playing at Washington’s National Theatre. And the “difference” is even more markèd, given that Rosalia’s line is now delivered in Spanish, rather than English, and that it is now part of a dialogue scene that leads into “Siento Hermosa” instead of “I Feel Pretty.”

Directed by West Side Story’s original librettist, Arthur Laurents, this production features both dialogue and lyrics spoken in Spanish by the Puerto Ricans – Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chino, and the Sharks – while the Americans – Tony, Riff, A-Rab, Anybodys, and the Jets – continue to speak and sing their lines in English. More on that later.

Fifty-two years ago, the original production of West Side Story – conceived and directed by Jerome Robbins, music (and uncredited lyrics) by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Laurents – had its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theatre. During that tryout period, West Side Story took on the shape and characteristics that have been seen by theatergoers for almost half a century.

Five decades later, Laurents decided that West Side Story needed to be shaken up, and he has done so – up to a point.

Acknowledging that ours is a more outwardly multicultural society today than it was in 1957, the biggest change Laurents has made is the translation of portions of the book and lyrics into Spanish. Initially, he planned on projecting surtitles in English translation for those audience members who are not Spanish-speaking (as would be done for an opera sung in Italian, for example). During the preview period of the Washington run, however, the director scuttled those plans, so that now the Spanish dialogue and lyrics are raw and untranslated.

The effect of this, while it may uphold some inchoate artistic integrity, is to exclude large portions of the audience from fully understanding what is said on stage. The only people who are able to comprehend it more completely are those who (a) speak Spanish or (b) have virtually memorized the book and score of West Side Story prior to coming to the theatre.

That aside, and though I expect an active debate about the merits of Laurents’ decision about language, the use of Spanish in the play seems somewhat arbitrary (while still far less arbitrary than its intermittent use in the original version).

In various places, Laurents chooses to have his characters switch from Spanish to English when an important statement is made. In the best example, assimilationist Anita forsakes English for Spanish after her boyfriend is killed by the native New Yorkers. This makes sense dramatically and would likely occur in real life.

But in another instance, when Chino (Joey Haro) comes to see Maria after the rumble, their conversation is entirely in Spanish, until he switches to English to say, with emphasis, “Tony killed Bernardo.” It seems that the opposite would be the case in “real life” – that the early part of the conversation could be in English but, when Chino wants to emphasize the bad news, he would switch to Spanish.

Later in the second act, when Maria and Anita are trying to deceive Lieutenant Schrank (Steve Bassett) by talking about Maria’s “headache” and fetching a remedy from Doc’s pharmacy, it would be much more natural for the two of them to speak in Spanish in front of the monolingual police officer. Instead, Laurents retains the convoluted English dialogue.

What this adds up to is that, whenever Laurents wants to ensure that the audience understands what is being said, he uses English, even if (dramatically and realistically) the use of English at that moment makes no sense. This ultimately undermines Laurents’ purpose, and the interposition of Spanish becomes just as arbitrary as its lesser use was in 1957.

Laurents has also taken liberty with other bits of dialogue, which is his privilege both as director and as playwright. Glad Hand (Michael Mastro), for example, during the dance at the gym, nasally repeats “Abstinence! Abstinence!,” setting up a joke in the second act. Yet, as funny as Glad Hand’s remonstrances are, they are decidedly geared toward a 21st century social reality and do not ring true as something a person in 1957 might say.

Mystifyingly, Laurents (and Sondheim) have not made an effort to change the made-up slang that they used in 1957, thinking at the time that if they used current slang, it would seem dated and outmoded in the future. They were wrong, of course, and both have complained later that the artificially constructed slang seems even more dated than the real patois of the era would have.

This would have been a perfect opportunity for the two surviving creators of West Side Story to fix something that they and others have acknowledged to be a problem. But we are still stuck with “spit hits the fan” and “motherlovin’ street” instead of words that any fifth-grader would use and understand. (Admittedly, the realistic equivalents of these words should not be printed in a family newspaper, but they are perfectly acceptable on a Broadway stage.)

There are other complaints made by Laurents and Sondheim over the years. Sondheim, for example, has said that he dislikes the lyrics he wrote for “I Feel Pretty” because they are far too sophisticated and witty for a girl of Maria’s social class and educational level. Whether Lin-Manuel Miranda’s translated lyrics solve this problem, I can’t say, because I don’t understand Spanish. (I don’t even know if Miranda’s interpretation is close to the original, or if it’s an entirely new construction that fits the mood and the music without literally translating Sondheim’s words.)

Laurents has also not overcome the most fundamental difficulty with the plot of West Side Story, one that is common to the source material, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.

That is, how can you explain the depth of romantic feeling between Tony and Maria (or Romeo and Juliet), who have their “love-at-first-sight” meeting in the middle of the first act and never have any time to get to know each other before the stage is strewn with dead bodies?

Shakespeare, at least, characterizes Juliet as a petulant, pouting, adolescent girl who stomps her feet and weeps in order to get her way. Juliet is a manipulative “daddy’s girl”. Similarly, Shakespeare gives us a randy Romeo who lets his hormones carry him away.

Laurents (or Robbins and Bernstein, who began work on West Side Story before Laurents and Sondheim became involved) doesn’t give us these kinds of characterizations for Maria and Tony. Maria is bland: pretty and charming, to be sure, but without any other discernible personality traits. She is starry-eyed and romantic, but without depth.

Tony, on the other hand, is down-to-earth and responsible. At the outset, he is shown as having grown out of the stage of teenage mischief and misbehavior. (He is the only one of his friends to hold a real job.) So for him to be the one who falls head-over-heels in love in a trajectory that leads to his death is completely uncharacteristic. One of the other Jets – Action (Curtis Holbrook), for instance, or A-Rab (Kyle Coffman) – who are explicitly angry and dysfunctional would be more likely candidates for Tony’s fate, yet they are alive at the end of the play.

What is even more indicative of the vacuity of Tony and Maria’s personalities is that, in this show that is so heavy on dance – energetic, dynamic, kinetic dance – the two “romantic leads” dance the least of anyone on stage. They are the most static characters of the ensemble, yet their story is the central core of the play. Is this intentional?

Oddly enough, all this quibbling about the core and structure of West Side Story seems largely beside the point, because once the music and dance are added to the mix, it is easy to forget the flaws of the piece, and to forget that Laurents missed his chance to fix them.

Joey McKneely has reproduced Jerome Robbins’ choreography, as most other revivals of the show have done. He has done so brilliantly, so that as familiar as these dance numbers are, they seem energetic and fresh. This does, however, bring up the question: If Arthur Laurents really wanted a radically new approach to West Side Story, why did he not seek to re-imagine the choreography as well as other elements of the show?

The production design, while echoing Oliver Smith’s original sets and Irene Sharaff’s original costumes, is also fresh, practical, and reflective of the setting: an improvement over the creaky and dated reproductions we have come to expect. David C. Woolard dresses the cast in gang colors – variations of orange for the Jets, variations of purple for the Sharks – that help us to discern the differences between the two groups without banging us over the head. His choice to put the Jets’ girls in miniskirts and the Sharks’ girls in more modest dresses was spot on as an attempt to express the cultural divide between the natives and the immigrants.

James Youmans’ scenic design works marvelously (except when one can hear the gears shifting under the stage) to evoke Manhattan in the late ‘50s, with one exception: Maria’s “balcony” looks out of place. Rather than using the fire escape for the balcony scene, Maria appears on an outcropping of painted wrought iron that looks out of place in New York but would be perfectly acceptable in the French Quarter of New Orleans or – dare I say it? – 15th century Verona.

The whole production is enhanced by the lighting design of Howell Binkley, who keeps us in a theatrical frame of mind when the script starts to compel us toward naturalism. Binkley plays with hue and intensity in such a way that we can understand why he is a multiple winner of the Helen Hayes Award.

Laurents has added a few new conceptual elements to the play that are (mostly) brilliant in themselves and help to hold the whole thing together.

With Youmans’ assistance, Laurents has directed a rumble scene that is far more claustrophobic than any we have previously seen. By bringing down a cyclone fence where one might normally expect an act curtain across the front of the stage, we can observe how the gang members feel trapped in their neighborhood, in their society, in their dead-end lives.

In the dream ballet, Laurents adds a new character, Kiddo (a role alternated by Nicholas Barasch, whom I saw, and Kyle Brenn), a boy soprano who sings “Somewhere,” which was originally intended by Bernstein to be sung offstage by an adult soprano. Kiddo’s presence onstage as part of a triad with Tony and Maria adds a degree of hope for the future amid the tragic circumstances of the play. Kiddo’s presence is long overdue.

One change that still seems a bit odd is at the end of the show. In previous productions, per the stage directions, the Jets and the Sharks depart the stage while jointly carrying Tony’s lifeless body with them, in the style of a funeral procession. While that ending had some problems, it worked well. The new ending – and this really is not a spoiler – is a tableau that shows Maria kneeling over Tony’s body, her head covered in a veil, in a scene reminiscent of nothing other than the Pietà of Michelangelo. This strains too far – but at least it lacks the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t cross-and-chain that Natalie Wood wore in the continuity-challenged last scene of the movie version.

The cast of this new production of West Side Story is uniformly excellent. Laurents has found a new international star in his Maria, Josefina Scaglione, an Argentine actress and singer. Scaglione is matched well with Matt Cavenaugh as Tony. That the two have chemistry is undeniable.

Karen Olivo brings bottomless energy, strength, and emotion to Anita, the play’s most fully-realized, multidimensional character, while George Akram as Bernardo expresses well the divided loyalties of a new immigrant in an unwelcoming society.

It may be unfair to be so analytical of West Side Story, which despite its detractors (such as critic Sheridan Morley) has come to be known as a musical theatre classic. While the show has its flaws and cracks, when it is taken as a whole – and this production in particular deserves to be seen as a whole – it is tremendously entertaining, emotionally moving, and inexorably memorable. I can wholeheartedly recommend the new West Side Story to audiences in Washington and, presumably, beginning on March 19, in New York.

West Side Story, directed by Arthur Laurents, continues at the National Theatre in Washington through Saturday, January 17. Tickets are on sale now at the National Theatre box office or through Telecharge at or by calling (800) 447-7400. Ticket prices range from $46.50 to $91.50, with a limited number of premium seats priced at $151.50. Group tickets are available by calling (866) 276-2047. For more information, visit

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Anonymous said...

I would like to read all the lyrics in Spanish to "I feel pretty" if this phrase was translated as "Siento hermosa" that is not correct Spanish. Sentir is a reflexive verb, the correct way to say "I feel pretty" would be "Me siento hermosa.." but then it would have too many syllables...Perhaps it is written in a way that makes sense in the whole context so again can you print the whole song in Spanish??
thank you

Cecilia Alvear

Rick Sincere said...

No, sorry. I don't have a copy of either the new script or new score. I don't think they have been published.

Anonymous said...

Well thanks to NPR I now know that the lyrics to "I feel pretty" in the new version of "West Side Story" are in correct Spanish because what Maria sings is "Hoy me siento tan hermosa..." NOT "Siento hermosa" which makes no sense and yet is the way everybody is reporting it... even the New York Times and the Washington Post. Don't they have ONE bilingual person on staff who can call them on this?

Rob said...

Having seen WSS today, I was actually quite taken with the shift in ending. The film aside, the 1964 off-Broadway production I saw at City Center still had that conciliation at the end; that belief in hope. In the recent production, there was none--and rightly so: The hatred was not resolved. It is up to the audience to do so. That is why the ballet dream sequence has that curious Agnes DeMille touch. In previous theatrical versions, there is not as much hopefulness, but, rather, a dreamlike reconstruction of the rumble. What I see in the present production is that conciliation is far off, and that is why the new dream sequence involves hope, because hope is a dream of the future. Sadly, in reality, the cast on stage is left in despair, with hope as OUR only recourse for true harmony.

Anonymous said...

saw it on broadway last nite.

was not impressed, because of the following:

1. Josefina was not right for the role - too opera, not enough acting skill. And i couldn't hear her !

2. Don't like the changes; the spanish dialogue, the "kiddo" crap - i wish it stayed true to the original.

3. No overture? WTF, the music is one of the highlights - big mistake.

On the other hand, when they did play music - it was excellent. And the choreography was amazing too.