Theatre Mirror Reviews - "West Side Story"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth

"West Side Story"
is updated, more realistic

Reviewed by Sheila Barth

Nonagenarian writer Arthur Laurents died a few weeks ago, but the passion and fiery trauma of ill-fated youthful love, bigotry, and hatred between rival gangs continues to ignite stages in the national touring company revival of his classic 1957 hit play, “West Side Story”.

When the show originally debuted on Broadway, it was unlike the sunshiny, song-and-dance, vapid romances that dominated the White Way. “... We have murder, we have attempted rape, we have bigotry. None of that was in musicals, but they’re in this musical, because that’s what the story is,” Laurents said.

The monumental teaming of Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, who was relatively unknown at the time, and choreographer-director Jerome Robbins set a theatrical precedent with their modern-day, hard-nosed Romeo and Juliet musical that soared beyond their wildest dream. It has since enjoyed successful revivals internationally.

Typical of revivals, Laurents thought it was time to update and improve this timeless hit, tweaking and changing it, to fit what he perceived as new audiences’ understanding and expectation. He wanted the raw hatred and gang cruelty exposed and spotlighted, as it was originally intended in 1957, when people weren’t as violent. Instead of using guns, knives and machetes like today’s gangs, guys used fists, sticks, rocks and chains to teach each other a lesson and lay claim to their neighborhood turf. Unlike Maria, a newly-transplanted Puerto Rican, and Tony, a Polish American and former leader of the Jets, (rivals of Maria’s brother Bernardo’s gang, the Sharks), everyone “stuck to his own kind” when they dated. They didn’t cross ethnic, color, or religious boundaries.

Because Laurents wanted to more clearly define youthful violence and prejudice, he enlisted Cape Cod native, David Saint, associate director of the Broadway production, and director of this touring production.

They hired Lin-Manuel Miranda (author of “In the Heights”) to convert some lyrics and dialog into Spanish, which is effective when the Sharks and their ladies talk among themselves, but frustrating to predominantly English-speaking audiences in songs, “I Feel Pretty,” and Anita and Maria’s potent duet, ”A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love”.

The cast’s body language and dance are so vivid, they defy translation. Opening number, “Prologue,” which introduces the two gangs and their rivalry, is spine-tingling. Indeed, choreographer Joey McKneely’s recreation of Jerome Robbins’ original, intensely dramatic choreography is mesmerizing. It’s racheted up, especially during fight scenes and the high school dance-off. Battle and rumble scenes are magnificently balletic, yet athletic; acrobatic, yet rhythmic. And the fantasy scene between ill-fated lovers Maria and Tony as they dream about “Somewhere,” a nirvana where everyone gets along, is ethereal, with tomboy Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger) melodically leading the ensemble.

It takes an ethereal couple to capture Maria and Tony’s rapture after they fall in love at first sight. Unfortunately, Kyle Harris lacks the emotional fervor this role demands. He sings jubilantly about his anticipation of something wonderful coming, but he’s gleeful, childlike, unlike a young man on the brink of first love, self-awareness and maturity.

Ali Ewoldt is charming as 15-year-old Maria, her pretty face, eagerly anticipating the joys of young womanhood. Her remarkable soprano range hits high notes with natural ease.

But Michelle Aravena’s portrayal of firebrand Anita is outstanding, as is German Santiago as Bernardo. As Maria and Tony’s love is sweetly tender, Anita and Bernardo’s crackles lustily in the contrasting “Tonight” quintet. Kudos, too, to Drew Foster as Action, who leads the delinquents in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and Joseph J. Simeone as Tony’s best friend and Jets‘ leader, Riff.

Howell Binkley’s lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, James Youmans‘ remarkably realistic set, especially under the bridge, and John O’Neill’s music direction are cool, boy, real cool.

BOX INFO: Two-act revival of multi-award winning show, presented by the national touring company, appearing now through July 9, at the Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston St., Boston.Performances are Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2,7:30 p.m.; additional 1 p.m. matinee, Thursday, July 7. Tickets start at $48. Call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787, visit, or the Box Office.

"West Side Story" (14 June - 9 July)
@ Colonial Theatre, 106 Boylston Street, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide