In 1961 the movie “West Side Story” made a “rumble”. Winning 10 Academy Awards, the groundbreaking film redefined the movie musical for all time, delivering the bleak tragedy of racial strife and social upheaval that blighted America’s cities.
Fortunately, our ability to deal with multiculturalism has become somewhat more sophisticated over the years. It is precisely this contemporary sensibility which colors the musical’s revival. There’s the Hispanic cast, for one, and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics newly translated into Spanish by Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In The Heights”), for another. Not knowing Spanish is hardly a hazard in this case. The message comes across in Leonard Bernstein’s unforgettable score in which dissonance and brassy sounding Latin rhythms soar.
What is different here is the brighter, more hopeful perspective. But perhaps that’s because Laurents failed to catch and convey the poignancy of his original story. While the movie which followed created a relentless, dark sense of “No Exit”, the revival expresses the desire for forgiveness and opens the door to the possibility of acceptance. In the final scene especially, when one of the white gang (the Jets) covers the grieving Maria with her shawl, it demonstrates the characters’ need to rise above the violence, rather than becoming trapped in it. As directed by Arthur Laurents, the style of this production is less classical and stylized, so the action appears more realistic.
Even Jerome Robbins original choreography, reproduced by Joey McKneely, looks more tense and muscular. These “hoodlums” look like the buffed boys in Hell’s Kitchen today, while their counterparts in the movie looked like they had just enough opportunity to brush shoulders with the corps de ballet. Regardless, those gang members were each individually arresting and memorably idiosyncratic in their behaviors. Here the ensemble of male actors is more of a blend. A blur, really.
The standouts in this cast are the women, especially Josefina Scaglione who makes her Broadway debut as Maria. Reportedly discovered by Laurents from a You Tube video, Scaglione emanates cheerfulness and unsuspecting innocence. As her Romeo, Matt Cavenaugh (Tony) is a strong tenor. Vocally he is a good match for Scaglione, even though he doesn’t fully embrace the wide-eyed enthusiasm and lustfulness that propels his character. As in his notable portrayal of the young Joe Kennedy in “Grey Gardens” and as the well-heeled fiancé in “Catered Affair”, Cavenaugh seems innately preppy here. Ouch!
Also making his Broadway debut, George Akram (Bernardo) from Venezuela is an amazing dancer. While he doesn’t project the sinister anger that fueled George Chakiris’ portrayal in the movie, he is a credible young immigrant, faced with the improbability of his own survival.
After all, adolescent “strum and drang” has changed since the ‘60’s. And what Laurents brings to this production is a contemporary sensibility that includes more graphic sexuality. So, when one of the Jets tries to rape Anita (Karen Oliva), Bernardo’s girlfriend, it’s not a tussle that leads to her tossing her skirt in his face, but an event which initiates a series of terrifying disclosures. Oliva is the most nuanced actor on the stage.
In keeping with the lighter mood, James Youmans scenic designs render a spacious feeling, albeit a somewhat nondescript spaciousness at that with fire escapes and dark exterior walls lining the alleys. Similarly, David C. Woolard’s costumes are serviceable, but not attention getting. The lighting by Howell Binkley is not nearly so dark, nor the atmosphere so oppressive as the film’s. But this revival is a coup for the director Arthur Laurents, who at 91-years-old delivers a radically different perspective on the play he wrote more than 50 years ago.
By Isa Goldberg
West Side Story
1564 Broadway at 47th Street1