note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Lynn Heinemann
Walking into the Colonial Theater for Broadway Across America's presentation of "West Side Story," one is confronted by a giant graffitied wall, set inside a skewed "concrete" proscenium built within the Colonial's ornate original gilt stage proscenium.
The graffiti include the words "Sharks," "Jets, "Bernardo," "Riff," Lenny," and "A.L."
Lenny and A.L.?
Composer Leonard Bernstein and director and book writer Arthur Laurents have apparently been made honorary members of the gangs.
Based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the musical follows a doomed love affair set against the turf warfare of rival gangs. These inherent tensions are immediately invoked with the opening notes, as conductor John O'Neill and the 19-person orchestra don't play the familiar three note sequence smoothly and in tempo, but lurch through them, holding the notes and pausing between beats, building drama as the audience's expectations are disrupted.
Similarly, the addition of Spanish dialogue and lyrics (translations by "In the Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the Sharks and their girls also make the 54-year-old work surprising and fresh.
Arthur Laurents, who directed the original Broadway revival on which this tour, directed by David Saint is based, died last May. Laurents modified his script, removing much of the made-up slang found in the original ("cracko, jacko"), and adding new adult messages for "abstinence" -- which of course, the kids mock.
But, as always, what makes "West Side Story" work is the brilliance of the original creative team. Most of those original elements are still in place — music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, here recreated by Joey McKneely.
That stunning choreography -- from the fiery mambo at the "Dance at the Gym," (originally by co-choreographer Peter Gennaro) to the Jets' and Sharks' acrobatic leaps and lunges as they try to dominate the other -- shows how dance can advance the storytelling as powerfully as music and dialogue. A chain link fence, located downstage in the pivotal rumble scene, is put to effective use as the combatants climb and fling themselves off of it.
No doubt the crotch grabs and simulated masturbation during "Officer Krupke" are 21st century additions, but the simplest motions are still the most effective. Finger snaps can prove as menacing as a raised fist and a flicked skirt as seductive as a full strip tease.
The young cast performs with verve and energy throughout. As the romantic duo, Kyle Harris (Tony) and Ali Ewoldt (Maria) movingly portray the rapture of falling in love with one glance. As they duet in "Tonight," you can hear their wonder and exultation. Singing softly, forehead to forehead while tenderly holding each other, they establish that this is a true great love and not a random hook-up. Ewoldt is particularly affecting, luminously radiant, with shimmering, expressive top notes.
Amusingly, Harris has previously played Tony, not in "West Side Story," but in College Humors' spoof version, "Web Site Story" (www.collegehumor.com/video/4054209/web-site-story).
Michelle Aravena is a tempestuously dynamic Anita, desperate for Maria to retain her innocence even as she is lustfully involved with Maria's brother Bernardo, played with suave authority by German Santiago.
The company's first night in Boston was not without glitches. Velma, one of the Jet ladies, lost a shoe during the "Dance at the Gym" and finished the dance ala Cinderella fleeing the ball.
The final tragic scene was also disruptively disappointing. Unlike the original staging, where the gangs came together to carry away Tony's body, united in a solemn procession, this version ends rather statically, with Maria merely summoning one of the Jets to bring her veil to her. This undercuts the pathos and hope, which Laurents apparently felt was too optimistic, not to mention inappropriate and at odds with the real nature of a crime scene.
"West Side Story" Colonial Theater June 14-July 9 (Seen June 14, 2011)