Dueling Critics Rumble Over 'West Side Story'

July 22, 2011

JONATHAN: They used to call it Hell's Kitchen, but now the substantially-gentrified West Side of midtown Manhattan is called Clinton, and the Puerto Rican vs. Polack gangs of West Side Story are history. Some folks feel this landmark 1957 musical is history, too, or at least dated, and its romanticization of New York adolescent street gangs (a socio-ethnic fact going far back into the Big Apple's 19th Century history) probably does make it so. Still, the story of star-crossed lovers is timeless, and so is the music by Leonard Bernstein. Working at the peak of his powers, Bernstein composed in overlapping succession two of the most complex and brilliant musical theater scores ever written, Candide (1956) and West Side Story. This touring version of the 2009 Broadway revival recreates both Jerome Robbins's brilliant original dances and also the original orchestrations to greatly satisfying effect.


 

KELLY: Oh, Jonathan, only you could make a gorgeous musical confection into "a socio-ethnic fact" and other locutions designed to make people feel that seeing the show is the moral equivalent of eating their peas! The real fact (socio-ethnic or otherwise) is that West Side Story is almost beyond criticism: it's so nearly perfect it seems like something that grew onstage rather than something created by the hand of man. But it was, of course, created by four of the most talented hands ever to work in music theater, those of Bernstein and my idol Robbins. And they were building, of course, on the work of two of the most talented hands ever to work in any kind of theater: those of Shakespeare. This not-quite-contemporary Romeo and Juliet does a great job of portraying the timelessness both of young love and of pointless violence, and if you don't want to pay attention to any of that you can just watch the amazing chorus do impossible dances and the remarkable leads hit impossible notes.

My only quibble with this production is its decision to take some of the lyrics and translate them into Spanish. I understand that it's more "realistic" to have Puerto Ricans talk and sing in Spanish when they're among themselves, but realism is hardly the point in musical theater. In this version, there's too much Spanish for Anglophones and not nearly enough for Spanish-speakers, so the translation seems like a pointless exercise in phony inclusiveness. And it deprives us of wonderful lyrics (by another talented guy, Stephen Sondheim) like, "It must be the heat, or some rare disease, or too much to eat--or maybe it's fleas." A perfect description of you, J.!

JONATHAN: Lice, maybe. Fleas, never. OK, I like it and you like it, so what are you hockin' me about? The Spanish thing was put into action by Arthur Laurents, the fourth important set of hands in creating West Side Story (along with Bernstein, Robbins and Sondheim), who wrote the original and revised books of the show and directed this Broadway revival, and who died in May at the age of 92. Laurents thought the Spanish thing was a good idea, and Sondheim agreed. Sondheim was 27 years old when the show opened, and he still believed in love: "Tonight, tonight! It all began tonight. I saw you and the world went away."

All right, this production ain't gonna' win no awards for scenic design, basically using the 400 year old concept of a wing-and-drop set, but it doesn't matter when the show's aggressively handsome cast begins to sing and dance.

KELLY: Actually, I thought the scenic design was quite striking, particularly at the start of the rumble when the West Side Highway came down at the same moment as a fence came up, trapping the gangs in the tragic moment. But you're right (for a change)--the strength of the show is in its cast. I've always been impressed by the forethought of West Side Story's creators--rather than ask the impossible, they wrote two roles for singers (Tony and Maria) and two roles for dancers (Anita and Riff). In this case, as in the original Broadway production and in the film (Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, anyone?), we get a superlative singer as well as dancer in Anita, played by Michelle Aravana. The others are fine--Kyle Harris as Tony is in particularly strong voice--but Aravana makes the show. She manages to avoid all the cliches about Latin spitfires while still being as mouthy and funny and in-your-face as the part requires.

JONATHAN: I had a problem with how Tony and Maria interpreted their roles musically, especially Tony, and I think it may be the fault of music director John O'Neill. This isn't the conductor, but the higher-up who coaches and shapes the musical performances in rehearsals. He has them singing much too much of the time sotto voce, in a whisper, especially Kyle Harris as Tony. While appropriate for certain moments and phrases, Tony also needs to belt the high notes at least SOME of the time. If he doesn't have the chops to sing both high and loud, he shouldn't be in the role. And Harris is so ingratiating that I'd prefer to think it's the way he was coached. Even so, I'll take this West Side Story over any other I've seen, including the Broadway run of this very production, which I saw two years ago.

KELLY: I suspect the only real problem is your unfamiliarity with the concept of speaking softly! And my concern is equally trivial: Joseph J. Simeone looks so young as Riff that he makes Tony look almost too old--particularly when faced with Ali Ewoldt's Maria, who looks about 14. This disturbed me til I remembered that Juliet was only 14 herself.

But my bottom line is the same as yours: see this show. West Side Story runs Tuesdays through Sundays through August 14 at the Cadillac Palace, 151 West Randolph. Tickets start at $32 and run past $95; so far they're not on Hot Tix but hope springs eternal, so keep checking.