Photo by Don Kellogg

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

West Side Story

Arthur Laurents is still at it.  The Broadway revival of West Side Story is on its way to the great white way.   I caught it in Washington DC at the National Theatre on its out of town tryout.  (As if there were a chance it wouldn't come!)  There's a rich history to this show - the creative team (Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins), the original Broadway production, the movie, and the legacy of being a turning-point in the American musical.

As with everything being revived - it's hard, especially in this instant multi-media world, to recreate the classic original.  It's got to be different, fresh, and new.  While some may argue this is about the evolving art - I argue that a classic is a classic.  Why must everything be "updated"?  Why can't people be happy with a classic re-presented?  I have mixed feelings about this production.  It certainly was a tremendously enjoyable evening of theatre. But it didn't knock me out of the park.   Keep in mind that this is a review of an pre-broadway production.  Improvements and changes are likely and, one hopes, would turn this production into a smash hit.

Matt Cavanaugh (A Catered Affair, Grey Gardens) takes the helm as Tony.  Let's get one thing out of the way - he's gorgeous and has the voice of an angel.  But it seems I've recently attended a spate of mis-cast leads in musicals.  Folks, it's a musical.  Cast someone who can dance!  Karen Olivo (In the Heights) takes on the role of Anita.  She had big shoes to fill (Chita Rivera on B'way, Rita Moreno in film).  It seems those shoes do indeed fit quite nicely.  I think her challenge as she grows into the role will be to exude even more sexuality, toss her hair around a little more, whip that dress around a little more and work on the clarity of her Spanish so that the audience will be able to comprehend it. Newcomer Cody Green (TV - Step up and Dance) is Riff.  Yes, he's HOT, HOT, HOT.  Acting doesn't seem to bother him, dancing is above average, and singing is not a challenge.  Finally a trash TV guy who actually has talent on Broadway!  Look for more good things from Cody.  Two of the leads are foreign talent - Joseffina Scalgione as Maria and George Akram as Bernardo.  She hails from Argentina (Hairspray in Argentina) and he hails from Venezuela and is a relative unknown up to now.  Look out for good things to come from these two!  

There's also a whole host of chorus boys (Jets and Sharks) as well as chorus girls.  There are too many to mention - except to say someone was wise enough to cast incredible dancers in these roles.  What may have been lacking in the acting department at times was more than made up in the dancing department.  The outstanding ballet skills were front and center from the curtain up - Prologue and Jets Song followed by Dance at the Gym followed by America all they way thru The Rumble.  Bravo!

Curtis Holbrook (Xanadu, All Shook Up, Boy from Oz) is one of my favorites.  He's absolutely adorable, dances at the top of his game, and has been honing his acting chops these past few years in some solid Broadway productions.   (Would asking him out on a date here be in appropriate?!)

Let me say right here that I'm not a fan of some of the "new ideas" brought to the show. Dialogue and songs completely in Spanish, for one.   It was distracting.  I appreciate the blending of cultures concept - but at the same time I wanted to know what they were saying!  Doesn't everyone want to sing along in his head to I feel Pretty?  Sort of hard in this production as they were completely in Spanish.  I heard a rumor that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the updated Spanish lyrics.   Not a deal-breaker for me, but I wonder how many bus-loads of tourists on big white buses will be unhappy and start whispering to each other "what did she say?" throughout the show!   The melding of languages was not as distracting during the dialogue - because it seemed to have been done by "peppering" rather than paragraphs of dialogue in a row.   

Arthur Laurents came out early on and said this would be a ground breaking production.  To paraphrase what he said is to say that he felt portraying all of the kids as killers would not have been possible back in time of the original production.  But this time around - he has built in an intense anger and pent up frustration in each of the gang members.   Each, in his own way, coming to the boiling point and showing that anger in the dance, dialogue and song.  This was, to me, one of the most successful of the changes to the show.  I did overhear several audience members wondering why there were so many "pauses" during the dramatic scenes.  Fear not, nobody forgot any lines.  The "pregnant pause" is a device to raise the tension and drama.  This reaction might indicate to the director that it was used a bit too much for the average audience member.  You decide.

I am a bit perplexed at the need to have a "Kiddo" character sing Somewhere in Act II.  Great for the kid who sang it (there are actually two of them cast and they alternate) but it seemed a bit awkward.  All I could surmise is that it represented a look back to how they all "could have been".  I saw Nicholas Barasch - and he was absolutely adorable and had the voice of a young male soprano angel.   It just seemed thrust on the audience unnecessarily and without any real explanation or basis in the plot.

With all the artistic and interpretive updates  I think it also had the effect of making one musical number stick out even more than perhaps it did in the past.   Gee Officer Krupke has always been a classic Broadway show-tune.   I was half expecting a total re-imagination of the music and presentation of it.  I guess maybe they ran out of time on that one.

One final observation.  I felt I was somehow deprived of the full musical orchestration.  While I did not see the original production or revivals - it somehow felt to me that music was cut.  I left feeling that i somehow did not get Leonard Bernstein's full musical assault on the ears.

There's still some chemistry to work out.  It's not fully there yet. A few scene/set changes seemed awkward, and Act II seems rushed and disorganized.  All these, one would hope, are addressed in the "out of town tryout" notes and fixed before it gets to Broadway.  I believe it's going into the Palace Theatre.  Don't be fooled into Balcony seating there.  Those seats are an abomination!  Some of them don't have a full view of the stage.