• Our critic's rating:
    March 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall


    Cast 19 Mar 2009: Josefina Scaglione (Maria), Matt Cavenaugh (Tony)

    Cast 19 Mar 2009: The Company

    Cast 19 Mar 2009: The Company

    Review by Tulis McCall
    19 March 2009

    West Side Story is the iconic tale of Romeo and Juliet transferred to New York where two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, own the territory. The Jets are White and the Sharks are Puerto Rican. Nobody mixes with anyone unless there is a knife or a clenched fist involved. That is until Tony and Maria spot each other at a dance on neutral territory and come together like two heat seeking missiles. Within the next 24 hours they go from being delirious to committed to hopeful to dead. And the deal is that you are supposed to go along with them. These are teenagers in love. They live in a time warp.

    The Original West Side Story opened at the Wintergarden Theatre in 1957. At the Tony Awards the following spring it lost to The Music Man for best musical, and took home awards for Scenic Design, Musical Direction, and Choreography. The Upper west Side of the 1950s was where the rumbles, the street gang fights, took place. McCarthy was gone, but the bitter aftertaste was still there. New York was gritty and explosive and contradictory. Street gangs and the beat generation on the one hand, 76 Trombones and Mamie Eisenhower on the other. West Side Story was conceived and born in that world.

    This West Side Story was conceived some other place entirely. Someplace like Kansas maybe.

    This story is supposed to be about young men filled with wild hormones, all dressed up and nowhere to go, and the tragedy of such a state of existence. While the dancing in this production is glorious, and the set is astonishing, you get the feeling that the gangs are having fun up there, instead of resenting the crap out of one another. Everything is there except the threat. There is no territory to defend, and without that ownership, there is no passion. No passion – no story.

    The love story does give some electricity to the evening. The connection between Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione) puts both of them into free fall. These two actors gladly go there and are lovely to watch in the moments when they remember to focus on each other and drop the urge to give a vocal recital. As well, Karen Olivo as Anita gives a no holds barred performance from start to finish. Some of you will have been fortunate enough to see her as Vanessa in In The Heights and she does not disappoint here.

    These little glimmers, however, are not enough to lift this production up into the stratosphere where it belongs. The program notes make no mention of the setting and date of the story, and the costumes don’t help. Everyone except Maria and the few adults we see seems to be dressed in semi-contemporary clothing, which pushes us out of the time frame. The actors are all wearing a mic because how COULD you do a musical and just trust the actors to project…. Well, whoever is running the sound is pretty much asleep at the wheel and somebody should pass a note up to the booth along the lines of “Hello in there.” Tony is too loud. When he sings with Maria you can’t hear her.”

    I also wonder what would have happened had they cast a real live Puerto Rican in the show. Much is made of the show being bi-lingual and Ms. Scaglione’s being an opera singer from Brazil. Brazil ain’t Puerto Rico, folks. In all New York they couldn’t find an actor to play Maria? And though she is beautiful – does Maria have to look so, ummmmmm, w-h-i-t-e? And as for the gang members - I see these same men today in New York, walking the streets with one eye in every direction. Alert, furtive, possibly dangerous. Now, if I can see them in today’s New York, why couldn’t this director make them appear on the stage?

    Tepid. Like a lovely cup of tea that someone offers you. It’s good. And you like the host, and the sandwiches, but what you were expecting was something a little more, how shall I say – filling and spicy?

    Everyone executes their moves but no one seems to go that extra inch or two into the risky bit of theatre. The actors sing and dance, and no one bumps into the set. I kind of wish someone had.

    (Tulis McCall)

    The long-awaited event of the season, maybe even in the last 50 years, has finally arrived, and how you feel about tinkering with American classic musicals will determine whether you love or hate this new version of "West Side Story." In this case, the big change has been the addition of Spanish -- especially in song lyrics.

    Everyone knows the "West Side Story" story -- it's "Romeo and Juliet" set in a changing neighborhood in New York City. The white guys -- the Jets -- who live in the area don't like that the "spics" -- the Sharks -- who've have begun to encroach on their territory, and after numerous clashes, the two gangs agree to rumble.

    Getting in the way of their war are Tony and Maria, a white American and a Puerto Rican, who fall in love at the school dance. Defying the wishes of their families and friends, they commit to love one another for life and plan to elope. With her friends, in the bridal shop where she works, Maria is ecstatically happy, and she sings "I Feel Pretty."

    You know the lyrics: "Šit's alarming how charming I feel, and so pretty, that I hardly can believe I'm real." Only you won't hear those lyrics. What you'll hear is ³Siento Hermosa," the song translated into Spanish and you won't have a clue what Maria's trying to tell her friends. Judging by her movements, her friends' facial expressions, you might just as well assume that she's having a great day.

    Her best friend, Anita, goes along with this because she understands the power of love. Besides, it fits with her philosophy of why she wants to be part of this country, explaining to her friends, "I Like to Be in America." That is, until her fiancé, Bernardo -- Maria's brother -- is killed in the rumble by Tony, at which point she spits out in song, "A Boy Like That." Her first song is in English, but now, overcome by emotion, it's in Spanish. The problem is, you won't know she's saying here either.

    Purists may take umbrage with this, but in today's "press one for English" world, it makes perfect logical sense. Having Bernardo whisper in Spanish to his Sharks in words Riff and the Jets can't understand gives greater credence to the fear and bigotry the Americans felt from these "intruders." It also makes sense that, when the Puerto Rican girls are alone together, they would talk to one another in Spanish. After all, they're recent immigrants. So the question then becomes: should logic take precedence here or should artistic license prevail?

    The fact is, this production would never have seen the light of day again if Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, had his way. Previous revivals had been a flop and Laurents felt that the show was dated. He decided to revive it, however, only after his partner, Tom Hatcher, called from Colombia to say he just saw the show in Spanish and it was brilliant.

    A year long search for the right Maria turned up the Argentine, 21-year-old Josefina Scaglione, who came to New York for an audition and won the hearts of everyone concerned with the production. She is the bright light of the sometimes disappointing revival along with Karen Olivo, who plays Anita (and previously made a name for herself in "In the Heights"). Matt Cavenaugh, as Tony, is the weak one in this cast. He is gorgeous and sexy, physically perfect for Maria, but his voice is thin, and has too much vibrato.

    Joey McKneely has faithfully recreated Jerome Robbins' original choreography, hiring dancers more muscular and athletic than in the 1957 original, while Leonard Bernstein's music and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics (most of them, at least), still fall into the category of greatness.

    In the final analysis, despite reservations, those of you who've never seen "West Side Story" will be enthralled. And for those who remember the original, you'll still love it. Just brush up your Shakespeare and reacquaint yourself with some lyrics.

    (Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus)

    BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, The show seems haloed in a softening mist of compassion, turning its sidewalk Romeo and Juliet — and most of its young characters — into imperiled babes in the woods."

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "Uneven new Broadway production...which manages only intermittently to take us 'somewhere' special."

    ELISABETH VINCENTELLI for NEW YORK POST says, "It snaps, it crackles, it pops! It surges with a roar, its energy and sheer life undiminished by the years."

    JOHN SIMON for BLOOMBERG says, "Best revival any of us will get in our lifetime. See it and cherish it."

    ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "The irony is that Laurents' attempts to be inclusive and grittily realistic — the final scene in particular suffers for his insistence on technical accuracy — make the show seem no fresher, only a tiny bit less magical."

    LINDA WINER for NEWSDAY says, "It's still a wonderful show."

    DAVID SHEWARD for BACK STAGE says, "An air of immediacy and spontaneity infuses all of Arthur Laurents' high-impact staging."

    ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "Efficient but not memorable."

    ROMA TORRE for NY1 says, "West Side Story remains at the pinnacle of American theater."

    MICHAEL KUCHWARA for ASSOCIATED PRESS says, "Remains Broadway's best dance-driven musical...Whether Broadway's latest revival...lives up to the show's considerable potential is another question."

    DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, " Under the knowing direction of Arthur Laurents, the 1957 show remains both a brilliant evocation of its period and a timeless tragedy of disharmony and hate."

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