Saturday, March 28, 2009

It's a Snap

West Side Story
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book and direction by Arthur Laurents
Starring Matt Cavanaugh, Josefina Scaglione, Karen Olivo, Cody Green, George Akram, Curtis Holbrook

Performances from February 23, 2009
Palace Theater
1564 Broadway (at 47th Street)

Green (center) and The Jets in West Side Story
(photo: Joan Marcus)
It’s almost a disservice to call West Side Story a mere musical. Blessed with Leonard Bernstein’s greatest score--which not only has immortal songs in abundance, but also some of the most sublime dance music ever written and potently dramatic passages throughout--this 1957 classic could more properly be considered a ballet with songs or even a modern opera. But it seems unfair to give it any kind of label.

Suffice it to say, West Side Story--with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and original choreography and direction by Jerome Robbins--is unique in the annals of musical theater. Not its story, of course, although it is a cleverly updated and dirtied-up version of Romeo and Juliet, set in Hell’s Kitchen and featuring two rival gangs (the Jets and the Sharks) and the forbidden love between handsome ex-Jet Tony and pretty Puerto Rican Maria, whose brother is leader of the Sharks.

For the show’s first Broadway revival in three decades, 91-year-old director Laurents has sensibly kept Robbins’ scintillating choreography--which has been judiciously reproduced by Joey McKneely--in which the gang members and their gals seem to fly through the air, so light and lithe are Robbins‘ uncopyable moves. Right from the opening Prologue, when the two gangs engage in a fight that’s effortlessly balletic and mesmerizing, to the final, tragic scenes in which the age-old rivalries claim more victims, the show is a breathless, tumultuous primer in balletic movement.

Laurents--whose obviously intimate knowledgeable of the material shows in every corner of the stage--directs the song numbers with a particular feel for how they fit organically into the drama: Tony and Maria’s first duet, the lovely “Tonight,” is an emotional hurricane, as is “Somewhere,” another classic Bernstein melody whose familiarity has made it seem less remarkable than it really is.

If there’s any quibble with Laurents’ mostly exciting staging, it’s his decision to have some spoken dialogue and song lyrics in Spanish (estimably translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda). While it’s true that the characters would indeed speaking Spanish, it’s done too arbitrarily, without much regard for what’s going on in the story. “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” are the two Bernstein victims sung in Spanish: the music was not composed with Spanish words in mind, as Bernstein’s gorgeous tunes are wedded to Sondheim’s English words just as opera composers like Wagner and Prokofiev wrote to German and Russian texts. It makes a difference.

Still, the cast is nearly perfect. Argentine-born Josefina Scaglione makes an impressive Broadway debut as Maria: sweetly innocent in looks and manner, with a beautifully trained voice, she pairs nicely with Matt Cavanaugh as Tony, maybe not the most charismatic actor but he has a singing style that caresses Bernstein’s melodies. The talented trio of Cody Green, George Akram and Curtis Holbrook take their turns in the spotlight singing and dancing up a storm as the main gang members, but the scene stealer is Karen Olivo as Anita, a role made famous by Rita Moreno in the movie and Chita Rivera and Debbie Allen onstage.

Olivo, an incredibly athletic dancer who’s almost impossibly tall, is also an excellent actress and powerhouse singer--all talents she showed off superbly in last year’s In the Heights. She may be in even better form here: whenever she is onstage, especially in her big comic number “America” and her searing duet with Scaglione in “A Boy Like That,” Olivo is so sensational that she almost makes one forget about the rest of what is, after all, the enduring American masterpiece of musicals.

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