A MASTERPIECE REVISITED
by Harvey Perr
published April 3, 2009
West Side Story
now playing on Broadway at the Palace Theater
I was not in the least frightened when the faces of the gang members menacingly stared at us in what was intended as confrontation
when the curtain came up on the revival of West Side Story; but then, they started to dance,
and, at the sight of three male dancers, their arms outstretched – an iconic image if ever there was one – floating, as if transported by
wings on their feet, in and out of their fellow dancers, I was back at that Saturday matinee in 1957, just two days after its official
opening, reliving the thrill and excitement I felt then.
The overblown, over-praised, and bothersomely artificial film version kept shoving that memory to the corners of my brain, and so
it was good to see it again on a stage, where it resolutely belongs, letting loose and feeling free. Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent score,
probably the best he ever wrote for the musical theater, soared again. Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics, written before he transformed the
art of lyric writing into magical incantation, came through loud and clear and funny and wise and, when called for, resplendently
But this was no mere nostalgia trip. Since I was not impressed by how director Arthur Laurents, also the book’s author, in last
season’s production of Gypsy, emphasized the drab
reality of vaudeville’s death throes to the exclusion of the showbiz-savvy brassiness which was part and parcel of the original concept, I
feared for the grittier and more realistic approach to West Side Story he promised. Well, it’s
true that the Puerto Ricans speak in Spanish this time around and even sing two songs in new translations by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but that
just adds a touch of verisimilitude that makes absolute sense. But what is more significant is that Laurents has, this time around, located
the heart of West Side Story: he has recognized that it is not the story of the Jets and the
Sharks anymore than the work that inspired it – William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – was
about the Montagues and the Capulets, but that it is rather the tragedy of its star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria.
From the moment that Tony and Maria see each other at the gym dance, to Tony’s declaration of love in the still-melting “Maria,”
to their youthful promise of divine dedication when their voices reach a haunting harmony in the always-beautiful “Tonight,” right through
to the final heart-stopping and gut-wrenching tragic finale,
this moving and lyrical revival achieves the greatness that any masterpiece deserves. It is our lovers in whom our hopes lie and
it is our fascination in what happens to them that keeps us holding our collective breath.
The glory of this production is Josefina Scaglione’s Maria; there isn’t a single false note in her interpretation. It seems so
difficult, in these cynical times, to convey the kind of ardor and romantic passion that defines Maria, but Ms. Scaglione gives it
everything she’s got with such full-throttle intensity and limpid beauty that we feel, in her last moments, that she is holding in her arms
the body of the man she has truly loved and lost. Next to her, Matt Cavenaugh as Tony is merely brilliant. I don’t know if there has ever
been a Tony with the requisite manliness the part demands, but Cavenaugh more than makes up for it with his soulful singing.
And then, of course, there’s Jerome Robbins’ choreography, as fresh and gorgeous as if newly conceived; Joey McKneely deserves unabashed praise for his dazzling reproduction of all the dances
– the fiery ones, of course, but, best of all, because it reminds us that the musical theater has never come this close to classical
ballet, his restoration of the dance that accompanies “Somewhere.” While one has to admit that the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks
do not possess the sense of danger that would force us to walk to the other side of the street
if, in real life, we saw them coming our way, there is no faulting their skill as dancers and in their ability to bring to thrilling life
the riches of the Robbins choreography.
The adults in West Side Story were always conceived as caricatures, and so it is
pleasant to report that they seem, here, more human than usual. The “Gee, Officer Krupke” number is comically performed by skilled actors rather than by a facsimile of real juvenile delinquents, but it is
so disarmingly theatrical, it is possible that, by today’s standards, it’s the only way it could work. At any rate, it does work.
And then there is Anita, and, if Ms. Scaglione’s Maria is always front and center, she gets remarkable support from Karen Olivo’s
Anita, the lover of Maria’s brother Bernardo. It is highly unlikely that anyone is going to erase from memory, or from the annals of
theater history, Chita Rivera, who made the part her own in the way that Marlon Brando put his indelible stamp on the way we see Stanley
Kowalski, but Ms. Olivo is vibrant and womanly and sexy and graceful and her duet – even in Spanish – with Maria in the second act reaches
operatic heights and, it goes without saying, her “America” brings down the house. She is the perfect Anita for this particular West Side Story.
West Side Story is no
longer a memory for this reviewer. It is, once again, a living thing. Once again, I was in the embrace of its greatness.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com