I attended tonight’s opening night performance of West Side Story at Playhouse Square as part of my Review Crew duties (it’s a tough life, but someone has to live it!). Now, I am a true aficionado of this classic show. I’ve watched the movie more times than I can count, I know nearly every single word of every song, and I’ve seen this show live on-stage twice. Despite my history with West Side Story, tonight’s production was an eerie mix of complete familiarity and utter foreignness; at once timeless yet edgy, comfortable yet unsettling.
From the orchestra’s first note, I was thrown off-guard. No long orchestral easing in. The curtain rose immediately and the first actors were already on-stage. It was immediate and dramatic. The one-two punch came in the form of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. The moves and postures were familiar, but the visceral energy created live in the theatre was astonishing. The cast literally snapped and crackled with tension and emotion. By the end of the opening sequence I was breathless and tense.
The next several scenes were delightful in their familiarity, with Maria’s exasperation and innocence played out perfectly with just the right balance. The actress really had an intuitive feel for the role! The twist of very authentic (to my ear) accents brought depth and realism to Puerto Rican roles (because as much as we love the movie version, we all know that Natalie Wood was NOT Hispanic!).
After this spectacular debut, I’m sorry to say that the character of Tony fell flat for me. The actor’s voice soared and I very much enjoyed his dynamic range, but he just didn’t seem to connect emotionally with the role. In contrast, the social worker running the dance (a character by the name of Glad Hand, for you trivia buffs) stole the show while he was on-stage. What a ham! And believe me, we needed the comic relief to break the mounting tension.
The dance in the gym was masterfully staged. The dancing was explosive, really punctuating Anita’s later line: “Well, you saw how they dance — like they gotta get rid of something quick.” The back-and-forth, give-and-take of the two types of dance sucked me right into the action and made me want to jump up on stage, too! And the costumes were a riot of exotic colors interspersed with flashes of leg and thigh. The sexuality crackled and bubbled in the dance moves and I didn’t want it to ever stop.
The transition to Tony and Maria’s meeting was seamless and flawless. The woman in the role of Maria played her as an old soul in that moment, and it was captivating to watch. Even the flatness of the actor playing Tony could not dull the magic of the moment.
At this point, the staging veered away from the scene order of the movie quite significantly and in a way that made transitions jarring and really disrupted the flow of the show for me. The “America” scene was performed by the women alone and lacked the sense of playfulness and conflict as a result. Instead, it came off as more of a catty number with the women fighting among themselves. Then after the scene at Doc’s store, I was eagerly anticipating the “Officer Krupke” number, but “Cool” was staged there instead and “Officer Krupke” instead provided comic relief for the second act. Likewise, I was waiting for the Act I break, but the storyline pressed on to the bridal store. Instead of leading with “I Feel Pretty” (which was also moved later in the second half), “One Hand, One Heart” came in almost immediately followed by the quintet, the rumble (which was well staged but not as impactful as the dancing), and intermission, making the first half a good hour and a half long and bit disjointed for me near the end.
The line of tension, which extended into a very muted intermission, was broken at the beginning of Act 2 with the insertion of “I Feel Pretty.” It was jarring and unsettling after the abruptly dismal end to Act 1. In addition, most of the song was done in Spanish. Although (presumably) authentic Spanish was successfully inserted throughout the production, it really bothered me here since most of my favorite lines in the song were lost. I was doubly disappointed since my 11 year old daughter was with me experiencing this production for the first time and she speaks no Spanish. She was absolutely lost during some overly-lengthy Spanish dialog parts, and I know she completely missed the meaning of that particular song.
There was another jarring transition here to Maria receiving news of Bernardo’s death, then Tony appeared from the fire-escape and a magical transformation happened. As they discuss a desire to run away, to find “Somewhere,” they were launched into an ethereal dream sequence where Shark and Jet danced and played barefoot together without rancor. Maria laughed with delight and there was a real feeling of love in the air. But the most striking part was Anybodys coming between Tony and Maria to sing, “There’s a place for us…” adding significant depth and meaning to the number – especially in light of the current events of the last few days and months. I did feel, however, that the symbolism there and the emphasis on Anybodys’ outsiders status did undermine the romantic poignancy of the moment in the original production.
Another jarring transition back to “reality” and the scene of chaos on the street as the Jets regroup, but then somehow dive into the hilarity of “Office Krupke.” The piece was brilliantly sung and acted, albeit much more explicitly raunchy and shocking with the original stage lyrics used. Overall, I enjoyed it very much – as did the rest of the audience, judging from the applause. But it just felt out of place at this point in the production.
The scene in Maria’s bedroom with “I Have a Love” and “A Boy Like That” was gorgeously acted and sung. The lady playing Anita was top notch all the way through the show and she did not disappoint here. Her voice blended with Maria’s and together they brought tears to my eyes.
The following scene at the drugstore was appropriately shocking when played out with live actors – especially the near-rape of Anita. But the ending scene came to quickly and – most disappointing of all – there was no sense of coming together, of reconciliation, at the end as there was in the movie. Maria also made a critical mistake in the dialog stating, “WE all killed him” instead of “YOU all killed him.” It seems minor, but altered the impact of the end for me.
Overall, this production was solid and well worth seeing. It’s a rare chance to see Jerome Robbins’ original choreography blended live with Leonard Bernstein’s very gritty and emotional music and brought to life by an outstanding troupe of dancers and actors. I hope you go see it for yourself – then come tell me what you thought!
[West Side Story plays at the Palace Theater in Playhouse Square from May 3 through May 15, 2011. Ticket prices start at an amazingly low price of $10 and can be purchased online or by calling 216-241-600 or 866-546-1353.]