Broadway Critic: ‘West Side Story’
By Tim Croner, Senior Staff Reporter
America was shocked in 1957 when “West Side Story,” a musical that recounts the tale of “Romeo and Juliet” to a more modern tune, opened in New York. When a new production arrived on Broadway this year, that shock factor was still there, but not because of the show’s story of a gang-war or cross-cultural romance. This time, audiences were shocked that such a wonderful and beloved show could be translated into such a sterile and lopsided production.
“West Side Story” tells the story of Tony and Maria, two young lovers from completely different worlds. This production’s first signs of weakness come with the two actors chosen to play these star-crossed lovers, who unfortunately come off as anything but. The chemistry between Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione (the two lead actors) is almost nonexistent; director Arthur Laurents sloppily tries to cover this up by having them remain attached to each other throughout their scenes. The lack of fireworks between the leads is marginally made up for by how lovely they sound during their duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.”
Individually, neither fares better than they do as a pair. Cavenaugh has a pleasant voice, but his lack of stage presence and inability to comprehend the journey that Tony takes throughout the piece makes him difficult to like. Similarly, Scaglione has a lovely soprano voice —if only she could genuinely carry out Maria’s character arc.
Even Karen Olivo, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Anita, Maria’s best friend, barely registers during the show’s first act. It isn’t until Anita is nearly raped in the second act that Olivo nails the emotionality of the part, a breakthrough that leads her to her powerful rendition of “A Boy Like That.”
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all with this “West Side Story” is its inability to live up to the potential it had. The Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score is considered by many to be one of the greatest written for musical theater—a view that is, in many ways, valid. Songs such as “America” and “Tonight” have become a part of American culture, and hearing a full, dynamic orchestra play these songs was one of the production’s few breathtaking moments.
Any potential for this revival, however, was lost with Laurents’ attempts to modernize it. His integration of Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the show feel misguided, creating an uneven emotional power between the show’s two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. In fact, the only place where the Spanish felt organic was during the final duet between Maria and Anita, as the melding of two languages is physical evidence of the new, accepting American woman Maria has become.
Laurents, along with choreographer Joey McNeely, even managed to disappoint when it came to the show’s legendary Jerome Robbins choreography. The second act dream ballet has been significantly (and poorly) altered for this production, and much of the choreography has been toned down from its original state. The only scene that comes close to capturing the glory of the initial choreography is “Dance at the Gym,” which is upsetting in a show where dance is as much a part of the narrative as the dialogue.
“West Side Story” is one of the few truly great American musicals. But it is for this reason that the Broadway revival is such a shame: With such fantastic material and the cultural status it has achieved, any professional production of “West Side Story” should be first-rate.
Tim Croner can be reached at email@example.com.
Printed originally on p. 19 of the Nov. 24, 2009 issue of The Spoke