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West Side Story album cover by flickr user exquisitur

West Side Story album cover by flickr user exquisitur

As theater buffs already know, there’s a production of West Side Story in town.  It’s been at the National Theatre since last month on its way to Broadway, in a reprisal of its path 50 years ago.

Other reviews have made note of the decision by director Arthur Laurents to allow the Sharks and their girls to sing and talk amongst themselves in Spanish.   A love-it-or-hate-it decision, it endows the dialogue between characters with an authenticity and intimacy that hasn’t been seen before, and provides an instant update and relevance.  I know I hear conversations that I don’t understand (not just in Spanish) around DC every day!  Strategic sprinkling of key English phrases allow the non-Spanish-speaking audience members (like me!) to know where we are.

Now, the play is a half-century old, studied in schools, usually alongside that other great romantic tragedy of which it is a  mid-20th century update, Romeo and Juliet.  I remember the paperback with both plays from high school.  It’s probably produced almost as much as Oklahoma! Oh yeah, and it was a pretty popular film, if I recall.   With this in mind, it’s not unreasonable to me that Laurents assumes his audience knows the story well enough to follow along.  However, I have to agree with other reviews which note that “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love”, a critical interaction between Anita and Maria, suffers badly by being sung entirely in Spanish.  A lot of emotions are roiling around between these two women:  loss, grief, anger, jealousy, love…they’re working it out, but the audience can’t really follow along enough to understand why Anita finally agrees to go to the drugstore.  A strategic smattering of English here would have helped enormously.

Of course, Jerome Robbins’ choreography is iconic.  The dancers were fresh, young, energetic…especially the women.  My companion thought that the opening was disjointed, and I didn’t really disagree — but the music and movement really is a little bit disjointed there, and it’s by design.   The crackling “Mambo” and the ensuing Rumble were a joy to behold.

Karen Olivo as Anita was a pleasure to watch.  Confident, sexy, smart, funny; she filled up the theatre with her presence.   I think she’ll be one to watch!  And Maria, played by Josefina Scaglione, had a simply wonderful voice.  Her performance starts out uneven but she becomes more comfortable as the show progresses.  By the end we are crying with her over Tony’s dead body.

Matt Cavanaugh’s Tony, however, was a bit of a disappointment to me.  He was a fine actor — really the best in the show — and delivers a convincing, emotional performance.  Charismatic enough to fill the theatre, even to me way up in the balcony.  However, unlike pretty much everyone else (both fellow audience members, and critics alike) I was very disappointed in his singing.  He started off well in his first big number, “Something’s Coming”.  But, as the song moved along and the notes got longer and larger, the vibrato pretty much took over his voice.  He warbles so much that he sounds flat, and when he started to sing it took me right out of the story.   (Shall I forgive him just because he was great as psychotic stalker Adam on As the World Turns?  No, that’s a different blog post…)

Other quick impressions:

  • Little Anybodys was a scene-stealer!
  • Cody Green as Riff was a dancer adequate to the part but lacking in the charisma that’s necessary as the Jets’ main man.  I was a bit disappointed.
  • Action, A-Rab, Bernardo, and Doc were all quite good!
  • Lt. Schrank was a dark, exhausted, bigoted man – just as he should have been.

Finally — the music.  I had almost forgotten how wonderful the score is.  Almost.  Until that first number.  Then, I remembered.  Syncopated, restless, tense, tender, rough, dense, melodic.  It was conducted and played to perfection by the pit orchestra.  For viewers familar only with the film and its full orchestral score, it might have been jarring, or seemed thin.  But to me, no.  Days later, I’m still humming.

West Side Story, through January 17 at the National Theatre, is definitely a worthy revival.  See it if you can!

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