The cast of the national tour of West Side Story. ©

West Side Story

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Leonard Bernstein

Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by David Saint

Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

West Side Story is about as iconic an American musical as one can get. The current national tour opened at The Kentucky Center on Tuesday, bringing a “based on” the 2009 revival version to Louisville audiences.

The 2009 Broadway revival, which I saw, generated much interest with original producer Arthur Laurents’ declared intent to integrate more Spanish language into the script (undertaken by In the Heights’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), which he also directed this time around. Since then, many of the lyrics have reverted to English; e.g., “Un Hombre Asi” is now, again, “A Boy Like That.” Nonetheless, a sprinkling of Spanish dialogue in this iteration of the revival serves its purpose to emphasize the cultural difference between the young men and women of the Jets and the Sharks.

I should come clean and make clear that I consider West Side Story an almost-perfect musical. There is an overwhelming sense from the first iconic notes of the prologue to the final silence that everything that happens is absolutely inevitable. The original creators (Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and newcomer Stephen Sondheim) seamlessly blended all musical theater elements together to drive the essence of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietinto a compelling production – one that has survived more than a half century of productions, at all levels of theatre, throughout this country and across the world. I’ve seen both the stage and movie versions many times and have worked on productions. It’s a musical I love.

So I stand firmly ambivalent about this version, and what, for me, works and does not work.

In principle, the integration of more Spanish dialogue and lyrics is a great idea – indeed almost too self evident for it to have taken fifty years to incorporate. However, the application of the concept is inconsistent. The addition of high school dance chaperone Glad Hand (Matthew Krob) blundering through some hilariously incorrect (and politically incorrect) translations of his dance instructions is spot-on. The Jets, including Tony (Addison Reid Coe), now have more freedom to speak the language badly because the audience hears the Sharks speak it authentically. “I Feel Pretty” veers between English and Spanish – possibly because the lyrics are repeated – so there’s little fear a predominantly English-speaking audience will miss much. Yet the passionate “A Boy Like That”/“I Have a Love” (Anita, Michelle Alves and Maria, understudy Carolina Sanchez) have reverted to English, an illogical decision in a putatively bi-lingual production, because at an extreme of emotion we typically revert to our earliest way of speaking – in this case Spanish. And yet, Chino (Juan Torres-Falcon) bringing the news of Bernardo’s death to Maria has a whole scene – in which a major plot point is delivered – in Spanish. And Rosalia, who yearns for Puerto Rico, is left to yearn in English. 

James Youmans’ set simply and effectively captures both the immenseness of New York buildings and the crampedness of the mid-twentieth century Upper West Side. Continuing with the bridges link in this season’s PNC Broadway in Louisville series (Flashdance, Memphis), New York’s characteristic bridges and overpasses hover and loom over the action. The Act One finale overpass is less impressive than in the Broadway production but, together with the chain link fence curtain, creates an environment of danger and tension for “The Rumble.” Howell Binkley’s evocative lighting supports the emotional content of the production, while David C. Woolard’s costumes recreate the 1950s’ styles in a vibrantly contemporary palette.

There is much energy in this production, directed by David Saint. The Jets and the Sharks hit their marks with precision; but the passion seems technical, down to the obvious make-up bruises they sport throughout. These are rougher crews than in the Broadway version (New York reviews found the gangs a trifle too nice). But there’s little vulnerability under that street toughness to generate sufficient empathy in the audience to carry the tragedy. Indeed, on opening night there were titters from multiple places in the Whitney auditorium when Chino shot Tony. This is not a great response to a moment that should have some of the most weighted emotion – on stage and off.

Another moment that does not deliver for me is the frantic end of this Act One. The rumble itself continues to compel. Robbins’ original staging (reproduced by Joel McKneely) and Bernstein’s music set the scene for the inevitable violence and death. In the original script, after Tony has killed Bernardo, it is over Riff’s body that he mourns: his best friend, his second in command and the one to whom he pledged “from womb to tomb.” In this version, Riff is left comfortless while Tony dithers over Bernardo’s body.

The underwritten role of Tony is a challenging one. Mr. Coe handles both the romantic and erstwhile-gangleader aspects of it with effectiveness. His “Something’s Coming” is one of the most active interpretations I’ve seen of this song. On Tuesday there were a couple of strained notes in his upper register, which marred both this and “Maria.” Mr. Acosta and Mr. Lencicki bring appropriate gusto in their respective roles. Their dance duets (with Anita and Graziella) in the gym dance were powerfully energetic and precise.

For me, the outstanding performer is Ms. Alves as Anita, admittedly the most dynamically-written character in the script. Whether she was with Bernardo or merely imagining being with him, she exuded sensuality. “America” – as with the original stage version all-female, unlike the more well-known movie version with Shark guys as well as girls – was an energetic parody and paean to this country. An unfortunate staging choice during “Quintet” meant that, although she is upstage center, the lighting choices illumine the other four entities more effectively than her. Ms. Sanchez’s Maria was charming. The Rider University student has a lovely voice that serves her character and the relationship with Tony well. In the Bridal Shop, at the end of “One Hand, One Heart,” there was an unexpected moment of almost-uncertainty that stilled the audience as Maria and Tony took in the enormity of the vows they’d just enacted. One could have wished that Mr. Saint had found more such moments to engage the audience’s emotions.

My biggest obstacle to liking this version is dramaturgical. I understand neither now, nor when I saw it four years ago, why the Act Two dream sequence is truncated into only the “happy” half. The absence of the “nightmare” leaves Act Two without the needed gravitas to lead into “A Boy Like That,” which leads to Maria’s lie to Lieutenant Schrank (Konrad Case) and the rape of Anita, and thus Anita’s lie to the Jets, and finally Tony’s decision to go back out into the streets, and Chino’s action. This absence means that the hardworking cast has to work harder to make the second half of the production work (and both Riff, Theo Lencicki and Bernardo, Andres Acosta, get to spend all of Act Two in the green room…).

A nod must be given to the unlisted (neither in the program nor on the Troika website) understudy Melanie Wildman who played Anybodys on opening night.

Opening night jitters may have been responsible for an unfortunately premature light cue in Act Two that took the audience out of a key scene and meant that the effect had been previewed in a way that undercut its impact in the following scene.

The ultimate testament to West Side Storyis that it continues to survive, that the universal aspects of the story transcend a particular time and place, and that moments of power and passion transcend individual production choices. For those of us who are passionate about this story, we’ll continue to go see productions and we’ll continue to debate the relative merits of each production we see – with passion.

West Side Story

May 14-19, 2013

PNC Broadway in Louisville

The Kentucky Center

501 West Main Street

Louisville, KY, 40202