Is ‘West Side Story’ Overrated?

Is West Side Story Overrated?

One of the perks of being a theater critic, in those dog days of the season when you find yourself struggling to sit through the latest Chekhov revival or pretentious little comedy about tightly wound New York singles, is the Broadway-musical revival. Yes, you can complain — as I often have — about unimaginative commercial producers who keep recycling surefire classics like Gypsy or Guys and Dolls. But there’s good reason they’re recycled so often: they are surefire — unfailingly entertaining, no matter how uninspired the production, the indomitable high points of a genre that is America’s great contribution to world theater.

As someone who likes to think I have a fairly complete education in the Broadway musical, however, one show holds a special place: West Side Story. Of all the widely accepted masterpieces of the genre, it’s the one I have never seen onstage. Nor even — until a few weeks ago, when I finally broke down and rented the DVD — the multiple-Oscar-winning 1961 movie. Of course, I know most of the Leonard Bernstein–Stephen Sondheim score; I’ve seen enough clips to be familiar with the famed Jerome Robbins choreography; and I’d have to be a pretty benighted theatergoer not to know at least the central conceit of the story — Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transplanted to the street gangs of New York City in the 1950s.

Still, last week’s opening of a new revival of West Side Story — the first on Broadway since 1980 — gave me the rare opportunity of encountering an American musical classic in the way, by rights, every show ought to be encountered: as if for the first time. No memories of the original to protect — or, conversely, any need for a radical reinvention to renew my interest. No, I came to West Side Story simply to find out whether, in 2009, the show still entertains, excites, lives up to its gargantuan reputation. And my verdict, alas, is: Not quite.

To be sure, you can’t look at West Side Story totally removed from the era that produced it. When it opened, in 1957, Broadway musicals were almost all comedies, set in sentimental fantasylands, whether exotic , nostalgic or contemporary but cartoonish . Here, instead, was an effort to use the musical form to explore serious contemporary social issues: urban slums, race prejudice, the scourge of “juvenile delinquency.” It was also a groundbreaking marriage of pop entertainment and “high culture”: choreography that featured classical ballet moves, a score with elements of modernist art music, and a story whose tragic arc was as close to grand opera as the American musical had come.

In this new production, directed by Arthur Laurents — author of the original book and now 91 years old — the story is what seems least compelling. Partly this is due to the competent but bland cast. As Tony, leader of the Anglo gang the Jets, Matt Cavanaugh is an attractive, sweet-voiced Broadway leading man, but he doesn’t look like he could survive a game of touch football, must less a gang rumble. As Maria, the virginal Puerto Rican girl he falls for, newcomer Josefina Scaglione has a lovely voice and good energy but seems to be acting by the numbers.

But some of the fault, I think, lies in the original script, which might be hefty enough for a sung-through opera but here seems too thin to live up to its ambitions. I don’t expect a stage musical about street gangs to have the grit or nuance of the better Hollywood films of the same era, like Blackboard Jungle or Rebel Without a Cause . But I do want a love story with at least a hint of conviction, plausibility or sexual heat. The attraction of Maria and Tony is barely motivated to begin with; with two charisma-deficient stars in the roles, it left me cold.

The dancing holds up the best. Robbins’ iconic street ballets — adapted by Joey McNeely — are still vibrant and emotional, and they provide the show with its theatrical high points, especially the climactic rumble that ends Act I. Even so, I felt the production lacked some grandeur, largely because the dancers seemed a bit cramped on the stage of the Palace Theatre.

Yes, but what about that glorious score Well, this time around, it doesn’t sound all that glorious. I count 28 musicians listed in the program, but the orchestra sounded both undermanned and overmiked, sometimes drowning out the singers; in a couple of the early numbers, I couldn’t be entirely certain they were working from the same sheet music. What’s more — a heresy to even suggest — I wonder if this score really belongs in the very top rank of American musicals. The jazzy, modernist, Gershwinesque rhythms of some of Bernstein’s music — “The Jet Song,” “America” — are still striking and original. But is there a duller love ballad in any major American musical than “Maria” , or its Muzak-ready twin brother, “Tonight” Who would know that the lyricist would grow up to be Stephen Sondheim

Then there’s the revival’s one major innovation: two songs, and a good chunk of the dialogue in several scenes, are done in Spanish. This, the creators tell us, is an attempt to acknowledge the show’s multicultural theme more forcefully and to make the show more “realistic.” It’s a worthy sentiment and less of a distraction than I’d feared; enough English is tossed in to keep the Anglo customers from drifting off in confusion, and I, for one, do not miss the English lyrics to “I Feel Pretty.” Still, it seems like a gimmick: “realism” in a genre that depends on stylization for its very existence. This is a show where gang members do ballet leaps in the streets, for gosh sakes.

Is this West Side Story revival worth seeing Sure it is. The show’s daring, its social message, its innovative use of dance, are still impressive — for both a West Side Story veteran and a virgin. But unlike some other recent Broadway comebacks , I didn’t come away feeling that a great show had had its place in Broadway history triumphantly renewed. I left the theater with the gnawing sense that a revered Broadway classic may have seen better days.

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