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3/19/09
West Side Story
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New York audiences are most familiar with West Side Story from choreographer Jerome Robbins’ same-titled suite for New York City Ballet, from the 1961 film directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, and the essential story from myriad renditions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But it is on Broadway now after nearly 30 years (!), and a chance for a new generation or two to become acquainted with a wonderful show.

Leonard Bernstein wrote the score for the show, which premiered in 1957. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book and is now in his 90s, directed the new production. Most notably, it incorporates Spanish dialogue and lyrics to give the ethnic divide some real bite, but refrains from using technological wizardry. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote In the Heights, was charged with the translating some of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish, although the songs are so familiar that it’s almost irrelevant what language they’re sung in. In some of the conversations, the actors elide from Spanish into English, as Nuyoricans might. All in all, if you don’t speak Spanish, don’t worry.

Dancers in West Side StoryWhile the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) are still depicted as the interlopers in this turf battle, they come across as more balanced and better dressed than their foes. Much of this depth comes from the females—Maria (Josefina Scaglione) and Anita (Karen Olivo), two sides of a coin—and their friends. They wear purple flared dresses with flouncy skirts (designed by David Woolard) that the women swish around. The Jets guys are mostly thuggish or limited somehow, and the gals—who get pushed around a lot—wear narrow cut, skimpy outfits that don’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the costumes.

Maria is portrayed by Broadway newcomer Josefina Scaglione, of Argentina. Much has been made of the exhaustive search to cast Maria with a Spanish-speaking performer (check out this WSJ article) in a challenging role closer to opera than Broadway. Scaglione’s voice is sweet, soaring to high notes without sounding unsuitably operatic. She suits the fresh-faced ingenue role, even if, with her fair skin and light brown hair, she looks more like a Jet. (Such a statement might normally be un-PC, but the trend toward ethnicity-true casting seems to invite it.)

Maria and Tony kiss in West Side StoryTony is played by Matt Cavenaugh, whose elastic voice has a lot of mid-range vibrato, but he hits the top notes cleanly. Karen Olivo dominates the stage when she’s on, tossing her mane and skirts with abandon. Cody Green (Riff, and winner of Bravo’s Step It Up & Dance) leads the Jets in their powerful group dances; his muscular build and explosive dancing lend some welcome toughness. The dances (choreography “reproduced” by Joey McKneely) are anchored by Robbins’ familiar, often exuberant passages, which are far more street-worthy in this production than at NYCB.

The set, designed by James Youmans, ranges from obligatory (fire escapes and chain link fence) to awe-inspiring (a brutal bridge overpass, luminous orange and pink sky washes, lit by Howell Binkley). With the exception of the gym and dream segments, the set compresses the performing area, conveying a sense of being trapped, but also limiting the group dances. And Maria’s, fire escape/balcony slides onstage awkwardly. But in the end, all the elements come together for a gratifying production of a classic Broadway show.

Photos by Joan Marcus

  • Lynne

    Well, after growing up with the original cast, the original cast recording, and the movie, I found the new production to be horrid. The best song of the night in Spanish?? What if this was the first time I was seeing this?? Can I actually READ the English version in the dark??? Whoever came up with this bright idea should have been shot. A little ethnicity can go a long way, agreed, but when Gino has to break the news to Maria that her darling Tony has killed her brother, I am sure the audience would liked to have understood the conversation!!

  • Claude Brickell

    Would you possibly know where to submit plays for the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award? The submissions are between June 15 and September 15. Thank you

  • Steve Summa

    Also curious about how to contact Laurents / Hatcher Forndation. Does anyone know?

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.