West Side Story
Even the most cynical person out there has to have a soft spot. It could be a favorite CD from childhood, an old movie that only exists on VHS recording, or a recipe for a decidedly unhealthy comfort food that Mom used to make on a really bad day. For this critic, that soft spot consists of old-fashioned musicals recorded from TV broadcasts. Leslie Ann Warren in Cinderella, Mary Martin in Peter Pan and, yes, West Side Story. The movie, starring Natalie Wood, was a family favorite and there was once a little girl who used to sing along with unabashed sentimentality during “Tonight, Tonight.”
It is this sentimentality that made the characters of Romeo and Juliet eternally beloved and that propels the sweet, sentimental revival of West Side Story currently in performances at the Palace Theater. This vibrant, colorful production was intended by its creator to be an angry, dangerous show, revisiting the passionate rivalry between the gangs the Sharks and the Jets. It is not anger that is found onstage, but innocence, confusion and bliss, as two teenagers fall in love, despite their differing backgrounds and nationalities.
This innocence is both helpful and hindering to this production, which had been intended to be much more rough. But every moment between Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione, a 21-year-old actress from Argentina with an angelic, soaring soprano) is fueled with an innocent intensity. At times the love story between the two teenagers is difficult to believe in, and much easier to scoff at. They see each other at a dance, and after a few sentences are exchanged, they plan on running away together to live in the country. But the two leads share a natural chemistry that causes the audience to not only believe in their relationship but root for it and hope that – just, this time – the story could end differently.
It is the forces that keep the two from being together that are downplayed by the prevailing innocence in the show. Tony is an alumni of the New York gang the Jets, who are angered by the immigrant Sharks from Puerto Rico, who are led by Maria’s brother Bernardo. The rivalry – expressed mainly through elaborate ballet choreography (Jerome Robbins’ original dances, reconstructed for this revival) – never feels truly tangible, despite the many confrontations, war councils, rumbles and fights between the two groups. Even when a knife is brought into a fight and murder is executed, albeit, unintentionally, onstage – the danger these boys are in is never truly palpable. They are simply too nice-looking and too clean-cut to be gangsters. Even with strategically placed smudges of dirt on their face, or their shirtsleeves ripped off, they appear more like the boys next door than the boys from the street.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of suspense and fear in this production. The rumble between the sharks and the Jets is extremely gripping, and when the Jets gang up on Anita in the pharmacy where they are hiding Tony, threatening to molest or rape her, the scene is gritty and brutal, almost painful to watch.
Anita, who is played in a star-making performance by Karen Olivo, also demonstrates the best use of implementing Spanish into the script, a technique that both helps and hinders this production. In order to heighten the distance and differences between the two groups, several songs, or verses in songs, are translated to Spanish. For veterans of the show, this could enhance the performance, but for newcomers to West Side Story, it may make the performance confusing and difficult to follow. It is a testament to both Scaglione and Olivo’s acting that hearing the lyrics of “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” sung in Spanish do not detract from the emotion of the scenes, and their physical acting depicts the necessary emotions to understand and appreciate the scenes.
Perhaps even more than its plotline, West Side Story is famous for its dancing, and this show delivers upon that promise amply. The choreography is both athletic and energetic, but it is only when Olivo takes the stage, her long hair and twirling skirts filling the stage, that Robbins’ work is truly being done justice. This Anita is world-wise, but not weary, an immigrant determined to make the most of her new home, and she is given an honest energy by Olivo. Whether she is espousing the virtues of America in the famous song of the same name and fury and grief at losing her lover in “A Boy Like That,” she is a real, flesh and blood character, which is more than can be said of most of the gang members.
Directed by Laurents, the majority of the show is swift and efficient, packed with high kicks and twirling skirts. The only exception to this takes place in the second act, when a bizararelly staged concept ballet with the majority of the company dancing on what appears to be a beach, and a young boy appearing out of nowhere to sing, “Somewhere.” In a classically staged production, this concept ballet is jarring, causing more confusion than sentimentality or hope.
Despite the violence and anger, the overall message of the show is a hesitant, timid hope that results from drastic, and tragic, circumstances and mistakes. Tony and Maria do not get their happy ending, but it’s easier to leave the theater humming, “Tonight” then hearing the echo of a gunshot. Even though the show ends with death, it also ends with a small sliver of hope. And in this day and age, after dating has been reduced to Facebook status updates and text messages, this critic got gossebumps while listening to Tony and Maria’s fire-escape serenade, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who did.