Live Review: Switchblade Slice of West Side Life- West Side Story @ the National Theatre (2008.12.17)

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MP3: West Side Story – The Rumble by original Broadway cast

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MP3: West Side Story – Gee, Officer Krupke! by original Broadway cast

Get thee to the National Theater over Christmas — or at least by Jan. 17 — before its sneak preview of Lenny Bernstein’s iconic musical West Side Story heads off to a NYC Broadway revival. This same theater hosted the first shows of WSS back in 1957, and WSS is shaking the theater’s neoclassical foundations again fifty-one years later.

F***ing-A! (Especially with center orchestra seats, Row G).  Gone are the lovable hoodlums you know from the flawed film.  Here, they come out sans prologue, in ones and twos, dropping onto the set like cats in an alley. Punctuated pounces with drum and brass. Eyes dark, darting menance. In five minutes, the Puerto Rican Sharks have snagged the Jets’ Baby John, branding him over the orchestra pit.

This show throws punches. Lt. Schrank to Officer Krupke: “Say goodbye to the nice boys.” Krupke swings a billy-club blow to the nearest boy’s stomach…and blows a kiss. Hello grit!

New lyrical tension comes from a stroke of genius:Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrote all the Puerto Ricans’ lyrics and speech in Spanish — excepting Anita, who throws her English in Bernardo’s face with female royalty. The result: 100% honesty, and even more poetry. When Maria sings “I Feel Pretty,” we hear: “Hoy me siento/Tan Hermosa/Tan preciosa que puedo volar/Y no hay diosa, en el mundo, que me va a alcanzar.”

The award for player with the best in-character street cred definitely goes to Riff (Cody Green). The only performer that needs to go is Tony. (Matt Cavanaugh was the only principal earning neither wolf whistle nor bravo). Maria (Josefina Scaglione) is utter innocence and purity of tone. And Anita (Karen Olivo) is pure sauce. In the second act, Action (Curtis Holbrook) is the Beastie Boy gone Krupke on everyone’s arse.

Speaking of arses, plenty were flashed in the hallmark “Dance at the Gym” sequence. “Abstinence!” cries the distraught chaperone Glad Hand. No one in the cast held back. All my youth I had waited to turn 17, to wear Anita’s red-petticoat flashing skirts and get lifted high above ‘Nardo’s head — whoever my ‘Nardo would be. Thrills aplenty…making up for my sorry high school dances that revolved around attempted-mosh pits. “Mambo” shook with the same fierce hate Riff and ‘Nardo later staked in the Rumble.

Kudos to the orchestra. Though small, it straddles Lenny’s score well. The horns flirt and scream with all the luster of untamed jazz as the kids go wild onstage.  The magical moment for the lovers — their “first sight” across a crowded room — was perhaps their best. Arthur Laurents first saw his “Maria” singing on YouTube. And she didn’t fail him here. She beguiled with heart and her high notes alike. Her Tony was not so bright. Constant vibrato doesn’t cast emotion, Mr. Cavanaugh. While I wouldn’t have betrayed country and kin for him, Josephina Scaglione’s conviction was so strong that I almost forgave him — and was glad when she vaulted her song far above his.

Above all, shines the youth of Jerome Robbins’ original coreography, lightning-fast synaptic spasms. Backed by Bernstein’s brass that hits with force: tritones thrown in like sharp left turns. The ensemble is strong, fortified by Laurents’ direction. The jibes from the all-female catfight of “America” to the sleepover razz in “Hoy Me Siento” and the spontaneous angstfire of “Gee, Officer Krupke” are the genuine article. No mothballed 1950s vintage Levis, but raw emotional youth…sometimes callow, often wise beyond years.

In “Tonight,” the roaring cast medley, as Sharks descend by a lowering bridge, and Jets stream in upstage, we swing rapidly from the Spanish to English, from salacious Anita to hopeful Maria, in perfect counterpoint.  Without a hitch, the scene sweeps away. In the dark, a giant swath of six-lane highway lowers and looms on high, just like the Imperial Star Destroyer that seems to sweep over your head in the opening scene of Star Wars. A chain link fence swoops down in front of our faces with a clink. Switchblades will flash… sirens will sound…a gunshot will ring out…

(Author’s note: Got some dough? Help NYC theater breech the capital hole of Wall Street’s collapse. Catch WSS @ Broadway’s Palace Theatre starting Feb. 23, 2009)

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17 Responses to “Live Review: Switchblade Slice of West Side Life- West Side Story @ the National Theatre (2008.12.17)”

  1. Bunnie says:

    Bravo….I agree with all you had to say. My granddaughter (in her early twenties) and I (saw the movie in 1960 as a young teen) were at the matinee Sat. We had seen a rendition at the Olney Theater years ago and I wanted her to see a quality Broadway bound version. We loved every minute. Agree that Tony is all vibrato and not projecting his voice enough. Maria is ethereal, perfect. She and Anita were superb. Riff great. All the dancing top rate and so energetic. Good acting all around. Going to recommend to everyone who knew we were going. It’s great to share something I grew up loving with a younger generation. She agreed it is a timeless story.

  2. Lex O'Brien says:

    I saw this show too and was awestruck. I’m still hearing the great music in my head days later. I only wish I could dance like that.

    An excellent review here. Captures it all and brings it back like I’m still sitting there squirming with the fierce tension of this production. I want to go again!

  3. Erik K. says:

    I have not seen the production, but review makes me hungry for it. However, I quibble when you write of the Spanish transpositions, “The result: 100% honesty, and even more poetry.” Stephen Sondheim’s libreto is a late-era masterpiece of the eternally to-be-remembered, never-to-return Tin Pan Alley. More honesty, maybe; honesty is the calling card of the art of our age, not Sondheim’s. More poetry? Impossible, I say.

    It is exciting to have parts of this in Spanish. I grew up the firstborn son of a Latino-Caucasian couple who met in high school in their northern Manhattan neighborhood. I always wondered why there was so little Spanish spoken in the film version, very popular in my house, until the end.

    But please no one suggest to me that the big “America” scene in the original, for all its English-only observance, isn’t among the most trenchant and humorous poetry about race relations written in the 20th century.

  4. sam says:

    Lucky you…I say nothing of the sort. “America” — truly brilliant — remains untouched and sings with its original genius.

  5. Ray says:

    This is the worst show I have ever seen. the cast was boring and barely showed any emotion. It didn’t make any sense. The director obviously tried to make it more ‘edgy’ but it was just vulgar. There were terms like ‘spick’ thrown around everywhere. The rape scene was way too vulgar. the only thing I enjoyed at the show was Maria and Anita. Maria had a nice voice. Anita was awesome, her dancing singing, everything was way above any of the other performers. I spent $200 for each ticket I bought & I am livid. It’s not worth the money to go see the orginal movie version is way better.

  6. Roberta says:

    We saw this show last night and my entire family was very disappointed in the production. Maria and Anita did a great job and will make it anywhere, but the show needs a great deal more than Maria and Anita. It will be disappointing if shows that are acceptable on Broadway have sunk to this level. Don’t spend your money on this one. Rent the old movie, and wait for something good to come our way. I wish we did.

  7. Eliot says:

    I saw the show New Years Eve and agree 100% wiht Ray and Roberta. I was doing my best during the show not to fall asleep. They actors were boring, the show was slow and over all I was disappointed in all the songs that I have loved over the years. The show was much too vulgar both in words and actions, i.e. the scene of Tony climbing on Maria in bed. There were quite a few children in the audience, I would say 5 – 10 and older, and the sexual overtones were much too inappropriate. I felt Tony was VERY poorly cast. He was not close to being believable as a “tough guy”. It would be like casting Clay Aiken as the Terminator! Just not believable. Nothing about the wardrobe reminded me of the ’50′s in NY. The rape scene was totally out of control. And, I must have missed the point, but having the young boy “Kiddo” singing “Somewhere” made no sense to me and ruined the song. It was like someone who worked on the show brought their kid with them and let him have fun on stage. Horrible. What did I like about it? Nothing. And I must say, I am pretty easy going and enjoy almost every show I see.

  8. sam says:

    Regarding Eliot’s thoughts…

    Ditto on the Kiddo. I completely blocked out the borderline on vulgar child-vocal by focusing on the purity of Robbin’s choreography in the ballet sequence. The thing about WSS: at base it’s the Robbins-Bernstein core that rocks it, so the details can impress and fade as fit.
    As for children in the audience: when I went mostly young boys of age 8-10 were attending. The scenes between Tony and Maria spelled utter boredom for them, the “rape” was probably unregisterably inscrutable. I saw WSS at 8. Rape, especially race rape, was a constant threat looming in my life by 12 years old, as I walked about my B-more neighborhood. Better to first confront such inscrutable uglinesses in the theater than first on the street, eh?

  9. Chinh says:

    I just wanted to point some things out.

    First, I did thoroughly enjoy this production. I just saw it a second time on 12/30. There IS a warning when one purchases tickets that there is material which may not be suitable for those younger than 13. But in an America where adults regularly take their children to go see films like Pulp Fiction, it still remains the production’s fault when children are subsequently exposed to material that may not be suitable for those younger than 13. Interesting.

    Second. The second time I noticed how hard the ensemble (and George Akram in particular) was working to make Anita look good. So to disregard them by saying her dancing is so far superior to theirs is not only incorrect (as anyone who says so clearly does not know the original choreography), but rude.

    Third. One may not like the changes to the book, but it is Laurents’ and Sondheim’s rights, as part of the original creative team, to make changes to what they felt is an imperfect work. The 1961 movie is NOT the original–the 1957 play IS. There ARE differences. I don’t agree with all the changes. But I appreciate that the creators saw their work as imperfect and wanted to make changes to it. I understand, for instance, that the child represents lost innocence–but he was off-key both times I went. And I agree the consummation is unnessary, but that is an homage to the show’s roots in Romeo & Juliet, I believe.

    Any review that does not acknowledge how spectacular the dancing is overall is suspect. I “boned” up by watching lots of community performances on youtube before going, and to say that any of them are even close, is not a fair thing to say. Is the show perfect? I think there are some kinks that need be removed–mainly a lot of the dramatic pauses that Laurents feels gives the work gravitas, whereas I think it just drags the book scenes down. But overall I felt it was a wonderful experience.

  10. Mike says:

    As was the previous commenter, Chinh, I too was struck by the inclusion of dialog pauses, such as during the first Riff-Tony interaction. This being the tryout period, I first wondered whether the actors were momentarily losing their lines. But on reflection these effects have got to be intentional on Laurents’ part. I suspect the “why” of the pauses — their dramatic purpose — may only be understood after multiple viewings. And that’s a sign of a dense, rich work of art, a category WSS fits into.

    Other bloggers commenting on aspects of the production (generally positively) include:


  11. Greg says:

    A few comments from my wife and I after seeing the 8pm showing January 3, 2008:

    1) The National Theater: Could the seats be any more cramped?

    2) The Orchestra for WSS: Small but fantastic and full of energy and passion! A++

    3) Maria: Wonderful voice and beautifully acted. We thought she looked much younger than she was however and it was difficult looking past this.

    4) Anita: knocked her out of the park! She was a joy to watch and a her natural acting ability made you actually forget you were watching a play.

    5) Tony: came across a bit soft —they need to toughen him up and his acting before Broadway.

    6) Riff: stellar!

    7) The Dancing Numbers: All wonderfully produced.

    8) The Rape scene: over the line of acceptable!

    9) The balance of te cast: pretty good.

    Husband’s Review: B

    Wife’s Review: C

  12. Greg says:

    Correction – January 3, 2009

  13. Vance says:

    I loved this new WSS and its not the cutesy happy one people probably are expecting and I’m suspecting are hating now but too bad for them. It’s not a perfect show yet but it’s pretty damn good.

    Another correction though that I’ve noticed a lot of people on the boards and other blogs may not have known is that the orchestra looks small but it’s actually full sized. The pit is too small for everyone so they actually have 2 MORE ROOMS with musicians (on the 3rd or 4th floor I believe) where they play and the music is piped in. There are small TV screens and cameras by the conductor to orchestra the overflowing musicians.

  14. Donna S says:

    My husband and I just returned from seeing WSS this evening, and it pains me to say that I am deeply disappointed! WSS has been a favorite of mine for many years, but it was the first time my husband saw the entire story. Because the show had so much Spanish written in, he missed much of the storyine, (particularly the song between Maria and Annita which is a pivitol scene). Had I known that I/we needed to speak Spanish to enjoy the show, I’d have saved the money and gotten tickets to see something else. Our friends also attended with us; neither of them had seen the movie nor the play and they found it very difficult to follow.

    Why try to be authenic if the audience has a diffucult time comprehending the story.

    That all being said, the dancings was wonderful. “Annita” and “Maria” had beautiful voices. The casting for Rif was dead on, however, I did not care for the casting of Tony. His character wasn’t convincing, and his voice had much too much vibroto; technique overused, in my opinion.

    What a disappointment!

  15. Trish says:

    I saw the production last night and was very disappointed. West Side Story has always been my favorite show and it has always brought me to tears in the end. This show lost a lot of story line and emotion with the spanish dialogue. I missed hearing the english version of “I feel pretty” which is usually a very fun scene but I couldn’t understand a word they were singing. Also the very emotional scene with Anita and Maria after the rumble is so important to the show and was all in spanish – I don’t get it. I felt nothing. For those who were not familiar with the english dialogue they were completey left out. It was not worth the $100 dollars I spent.

  16. Dan says:

    I saw the production last night and was quite disappointed. West Side Story has been for 50 years, for me, the finest Broadway show ever!

    The two female stars were right on and gave outstanding performances. A third latino female (I believe it was Kat Nejat, but can be certain) was very effective, especially in the “Sienta Hermosa” scene.

    The original choreography was sublime and was performed splendidly in the current production. Probably it’s most outstanding feature.

    I found Tony’s voice (and his character for that matter) weak. Definitely not of the quality I expected in a production of the caliber this one is supposed to be. Biggest disappointment of the night.

    The insertion of the solo by Kiddo in the Somewhere scene is mystifying to me. It was distractive and, to me, unexplainable. I found myself trying to understand its significance. I never could find any.

    I appreciate the significance of the use of Spanish by the Puerto Rican characters, but, not understanding Spanish, was often unable to understand the actions and re-actions that accompanied them. Subtitles need to provided.

    I guess that’s enough. I had hoped to see a production that compared favorably with the original. Unfortunately, I didn’t.

  17. Victoria says:

    A lot of people are complaining about the rape scene, calling it vulgar – I’m curious, what happened? Why is it so bad?

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