Volume 78 - Number 46 / April 22 -28, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
They want to live in America.
Score, dances are best reasons to see ‘Story’
BY SCOTT HARRAH
More than 50 years after it first premiered on Broadway, “West Side Story” still resonates with 21st century audiences thanks to its venerable songbook. Leonard Bernstein’s timeless music and Stephen Sondheim’s classic lyrics shine in this mostly reverent revival.
Ninety-year-old director Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the original 1957 production, adds various contemporary touches while staying true to the show’s roots.
Laurents commissioned “In the Heights” Tony winner Lin Manuel Miranda for English-to-Spanish translations of some of the dialogue and such songs as “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That.” The latter song, titled here as “Un Hombre Asi,” is an essential plot-propelling number, so English-speaking audiences unfamiliar with the show may feel lost. Although the Playbill contains an English translation of the song, new generations who haven’t seen “West Side Story” may not know what the characters are singing about here. In the song, Anita (Karen Olivo) powerfully sings to Maria (Argentinean newcomer Josefina Scaglione) about the moral complications of dating Tony (Matt Cavenaugh), a guy who killed Maria’s brother, Bernardo (George Akram).
Karen Olivo’s take on Anita is fresh. When she segues from English to Spanish in the second act, her streetwise attitude and spunk are still evident regardless of what language she’s speaking. She commands the stage in all her scenes, especially during the song “America” when she sings with Rosalia (Jennifer Sanchez) and the Shark Girls. Olivo’s Anita is a complex Latina spitfire as textured and memorable as Rita Moreno’s was in the 1961 film adaptation.
Josefina Scaglione’s Maria is all sweetness and innocence, and there’s a sincerity to her performance that makes the character all too real. She’s much more authentic than Natalie Wood was in the movie. Unfortunately, there’s little chemistry between Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh’s Tony. Cavenaugh is a bit too clean-cut and all-American as Tony, and his rendition of the song “Maria” isn’t totally convincing. Cavanaugh’s light, airy vibrato in the song makes “Maria” sound more like an easy-listening pop track than a heartfelt proclamation of frustrated love.
Laurents has played up the roles of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang rivals of the Jets. The Sharks are as dark and gritty here as in previous productions and the movie, and the added Spanish dialogue makes them seem more genuine. The story, a twist on the tragic, star-crossed lovers in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” remains primarily intact, but the real star of “West Side Story” is, and always has been, the score and the dancing. Despite some of the thematic tweaking, it is still emotionally chilling to hear a 30-piece orchestra blast out the show’s cherished songs and watch Jerome Robbins’ electric choreography.