Thursday, March 26, 2009

West Side Story

“. . . the minutes seem like hours. . .” Those words from “Tonight” properly sum up my reaction to this lifeless revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre. Director Arthur Laurents and cast have taken beautiful songs, inspired choreography and a story of hatred, love, death and forgiveness and turned them into an evening of boring, amateur-quality theatre.

I was looking forward to West Side Story, a show I haven’t seen onstage since a West End production in London when I was in college. What a disappointment to encounter another flat revival, so in keeping with the others in the 2008-2009 season -- Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls. Our Drama Desk category for Best Revival of a Musical should be changed this year to Least Dreadful Revival of a Musical. Voting will be a challenge this season, as it was last year for the opposite reason when it was hard to choose between such gems as Gypsy and South Pacific.

West Side Story was a groundbreaking musical when it made its world premiere at Washington’s National Theatre in 1957. It still could be dynamic because the show itself doesn’t feel dated. It’s just the execution that is static. Jerome Robbins’s killer choreography has been preserved and restaged by Joey McKneely, but these dancers seem to be just going through the motions. I’ve seen more passion -- far more -- in cardio classes at my gym.

And that’s the problem with the whole production, a profound lack of connection -- between dancers and their numbers, between singers and their songs and between characters. Their bodies are going through the motions, but no one seems present. It’s a waste of the classic music of Leonard Bernstein, lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and book by Laurents, especially since this is the first Broadway revival in nearly three decades and the producers have gone all out with an onstage cast of 37 and 30 musicians in the orchestra pit.

Matt Cavenaugh is a bland Tony who delivers the absolute worst death scene I have ever seen onstage. (Of course, if you’ve already come across as dead for two and a half hours I guess it’s pretty hard to make the real thing convincing). As Maria, Argentinean actress Josefina Scaglione is in her own orbit, George Akram as Bernardo is a cliché and, biggest disappointment of all, Karen Olivo (in photo with Shark Girls), who had been so winning in In the Heights, plays Anita like a frustrated middle-aged aunt .

While Laurents takes a laissez-faire approach to directing his performers, he was more aggressive with the script. For the first time Spanish is spoken in an attempt to make the Sharks and Jets appear equal, but since I don’t speak Spanish those dialogue scenes dragged an already dragging show for me, plus I felt left out when other members of the audience laughed. I know the story so I got the gist of what was being said, but I mainly just tuned out and waited for them to get back to English. I also know the words to the two songs they sang in Spanish -- “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” -- but I would have preferred them in English.

Another change Laurents made that I don’t like is leaving Tony’s dead body on the stage at the end. He said in an interview that this is more realistic because the police wouldn’t allow a crime scene to be disturbed by letting the Jets and Sharks carry Tony away. That’s ridiculous! What’s realistic about gang members singing and dancing, in ballet movements nonetheless? The two gangs coming together is a mirror of the Montagues and Capulets making peace at the end of Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare play that inspired the musical. It was a beautiful touch and should have been kept.

Tickets for West Side Story are available by visiting or by calling (212) 307-4100.

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