“Could it be? Yes it could. Something’s comin’, something good!”
Fervent Cheer/Standing Ovation
So although it took me two weeks to finally find the time to write this rather long review of West Side Story, currently playing at the Palace Theater on 47th and Broadway, I must say that I’m glad it took me so long to get to it. As time went on there was more and more about this show that I found that I remembered and liked – something that usually does not happen. I saw it the day after it opened and the house was packed full; sold out with standing room on the Orchestra, Mezzanine AND Balcony! Phew! Also, I must premise this review with the following: this current Broadway revival is the only production of West Side Story I have ever seen. I have never seen the movie or any regional production of the show. I have seen clips of Debbie Allan in 1980 performing “America” so I went into this production with her dance ability on my mind. Now on to the review…
The “Prologue” and the “Jet Song” started off the show with some very intricate steps and great formations. There was no real Overture so we were thrown right into the show. I was really excited once the curtain rose and seeing Cody Green (Movin’ Out & Grease) as Riff lead the Jets in their dance was very intriguing to me. Though there was one ensemble guy who was a split second behind everyone else but it wasn’t too distracting. By the end of the “Jet Song” though I felt there was some spark that was missing; perhaps some innate feeling of raw passion. Yes, you call can dance… Very well… Now give me a little something more. Enter Matt Cavenaugh (Grey Gardens) as Tony singing “Something’s Coming.” Great voice. Crazy vibrato! His vibrato was out of this world and a touch distracting at first. It wasn’t that he couldn’t control his voice; that’s just how his voice is. It worked perfectly though once joined by his Maria (getting to that in a bit). Matt hit a note at the end of the song though that was just incredibly high and incredible period!
Next we meet newcomer from Argentina Josefina Scaglione as Maria and Karen Olivo (In The Heights) as Anita. Josefina seemed to understand the earnestness and innocence of Maria that I found very charming. Karen, who I LOVED in In The Heights, was very funny and found a very good balance between the humor and maturity of the character, especially since she becomes a maternal figure to Maria as the show progresses. The “Dance at the Gym” came next, probably the most recognizable scene/song aside from “America.” The Adult Male is what the character is called I suppose was a little too cheesy to my liking but luckily he wasn’t on stage for very long before the phenomenal dancing began. Joey McKneely really recreated the incredible Jerome Robbins choreography very well. The Dream Ballet, while simple was very charming and beautiful to watch.
The ever famous, and often auditioned, “Maria,” followed by “Tonight,” was very pleasant to listen to. Both Matt and Josefina have great voices, both chock full of vibrato, which apart sounds a little overkill but together is gorgeous to hear; very operatic.
NOW!!!! “America!” George Akram as Bernardo was good but it seemed to be kind of a thankless role. I didn’t really remember the character much after the show but I suppose it isn’t the largest role. Regardless, he and the other Shark males were funny in their bantering with the girls and though they delivered a lot of their lines in Spanish, the general idea wasn’t lost. Once the song started and Karen Olivo opened her mouth it was almost as if the Gods themselves descended upon the stage and were performing (overkill?). She has such an incredible voice that she really gets to showcase in this scene and coupled with her acting ability, if she doesn’t get at least the Tony nomination, I will relinquish any dream of making it on Broadway or in Hollywood! Her dancing isn’t amazing and wouldn’t be even if I didn’t have Debbie Allan on my mind, her other skills more than make up for it. That and although she is not the strongest dancer she never looks like she’s trying and never breaks character. The tempo of the song is slowed down a bit and while I wanted it to be a bit faster, I’m assuming they slowed it down for Karen’s benefit and if that was beneficial for her, than I’m all for it. It brought down the house anyway, so it achieved its purpose.
The dancing in “Cool” was nice to look at (again). The Jets can definitely dance but I found myself somewhat disinterested when the Jets were onstage and weren’t singing or dancing. Cody Green is definitely a dancer and an okay singer but not the strongest of actor. I kind of felt at some points that he had cotton in his mouth when he spoke. “One Hand, One Heart” was okay but a bit forgettable. “Tonight” (Quintet) was amazing. I love hearing the entire cast singing together like that and again Karen blew her part out of the water as did Josefina with her final note. “The Rumble” was interesting because a chain-link gate was lowered in front of the stage which I thought would create a bit of disconnect between the audience and the cast but didn’t. It actually drew me in more. By the time the curtain came down I was indeed ready for a break.
Act II opens with “Siento Hermosa” which is “I Feel Pretty” but is now entirely in Spanish, translated by the genius Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator and star of In The Heights). The feeling was there but since I didn’t understand word-for-word what was being said I felt my attention waxing and waning. I didn’t notice until after the show that the English lyrics are in the Playbill. Very smart to do this! “Somewhere” came after this but to be honest, I do not remember it at all! Sorry! Next was “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the different-sounding chipper fun song sung by the Jet guys. It’s the “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” Sondheim number from Gypsy (which I really did not like, but that’s another story) which was funny but seemed a little ill-placed. After I thought about it though, it made sense. They’re trying to deal with having witnessed death.
Now for my favorite song in the show, now also entirely in Spanish (translation in the Playbill), “Un Hombre Asi” or “A Boy Like That” and “I Have a Love.” Karen and Josefina OWN this song. Karen’s voice once again is awesome and she truly delivers the passion and anger, even fire behind Anita’s berating of Maria. The following scene, which is called the Taunt I believe, but I’ll just call it the Rape scene, brought me as close to tears as possible without actually shedding one. Karen’s ear-piercing screams as she’s being attacked by the Jet guys had the entire audience on the edge of their seats. It was so powerful that it made me want to run down the aisle to save her. Once the scene was over I felt though, God forgive me, that the scene would have been 100% instead of 95% had they tossed Anita around a bit more. Just my opinion.
The final scene: Josefina adequately shows her breakdown as she points the gun at the Jet guys as Tony dies. Her cries over his corpse were somewhat effective but not as heart-wrenching as it could have been. Curtain down on a very good revival.
Now I have spent all this time in this hella long review talking mostly about what I really enjoyed. There were some flaws, in my eyes anyway. First, the Jets were not intimidating at all. These are all supposed to be gang members but I didn’t feel they were street thugs. More lunchroom bullies but oh well. They had fast feet and suave snaps but murderers they ain’t. I didn’t feel any of them were very strong actors either, save for Curtis Holbrook who shined during “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The choreography, which is Jerome Robbins’ original choreography recreated, was executed exceptionally well by the Jets, the guys especially, and pretty well by the Shark girls. The Shark guys were good dancers but don’t have much dancing to do outside the “Dance at the Gym.” Arthur Laurents’ direction was a bit patchy but at 91 years old he did a hell of a job. Lastly, I know the quality of the production is in the show itself and not the sets or staging but the sets, the bedroom and bridal shop in particular, were so spare. The stage was bare, except for moving bodies and a bed or table and a sheet that was lowered from the flies, for most of the show. I would have liked to have seen an updated vision of the set, perhaps like In The Heights, instead, but I got over that rather quickly.
All in all I really enjoyed this production of West Side Story. I have been told that it is a very good introduction to the phenomenon that is WSS and was good enough for me to spend $90 in merchandise (the most I have spent so far at a show). I definitely recommend this show to anyone who enjoys theater. It truly is a good show and even if you see it just so that you can say you’ve seen Karen Olivo, that’s a good enough reason. While it may not be cute like Shrek, magical like Mary Poppins or funny and charming like 9 to 5, it is a classic piece revived for an audience that can and really should appreciate it what it is. Even though the material is over 40 years old, many of its themes still hold true today in so many ways. Whether you spend $26.50 for front row lottery (the stage at the Palace Theater is high so beware of these seats if you want to really appreciate the dance formations), $36.50 for standing room or $120 for center Orchestra seats, spend something, if you can, to see this show!