By admin on Mar 20, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
For people who scoff at the idea of love at first sight, plays like Romeo and Juliet and the musical West Side Story, which draws upon Shakespeare's tragedy for its plot, require a rather hefty suspension of disbelief. In both of these works, a pair of "star crossed lovers" see one another and are instantly catapulted into a desire for and adoration of one another that leads to death. Such cynics, and I count myself among them, will have to reconsider their thoughts on instantaneous rapture after seeing Arthur Laurents' thrillingly haunting revival of "West Side" which opened last night at the Palace Theatre.
The object of adoration in the show is Josefina Scaglione, a young Argentine making her Broadway debut in the role of Maria, the Juliet of this 1950s teenage gang revision to the Bard's play. Scaglione certainly makes for a captivatingly beautiful heroine from her first appearance, but when she begins to sing, in a sweet, clarion, almost birdlike soprano that belies the power and passion that it can hold, love is not only in the air for Tony (Matt Cavanaugh), the Anglo who falls for this FOB Puerto Rican, but also for theatergoers.
To say that the world, or the show, "went away" – to borrow from one of Sondheim's lyrics for "West Side" – after Scaglione and Cavanaugh delivered a ravishing "Tonight," would not be entirely accurate, but I will admit to tearing from Scaglione's first notes, and eagerly anticipating the next moments in which Maria would sing.
Before and after this duet, the pleasures of "West Side" are considerable and even if Scaglione were less movingly impressive, this revival is vital and vibrant. From the moment the curtain rises on James Youmans' black and white rendering of city buildings and the old elevated train tracks – expressionistic to start but made more so by Howell Binkley's striking lighting design – the production captivates and the menace that dooms Tony and Maria's sweet love is palpable.
When the two gangs – the gringo Jets and the Latino Sharks – confront one another in the street, the ensemble performs Jerome Robbins' legendary choreography (reproduced by Joey McKneely) with edgy precision as Leonard Bernstein's jagged, urban-souding music plays. The tension felt during the show's opening moments makes the meeting between the innocent Maria and, in Cavanaugh's appealing performance, almost doe-eyed Tony all the more heart-racing. One wants them to have the chance to fall in love and be happy, and yet, even if one has never experienced the piece, or its Elizabethan ancestor, that such bliss will never materialize.
How could it when anger is the primary emotion that characters express alongside their love? When the Jets, led by Action (Curtis Holbrook), offer up the comic "Gee Officer, Krupke," their bitterness with the world into which they've been born is palpable. Later when Anita (performed with passion and danced beautifully by Karen Olivo) arrives at the drug store where Tony works to deliver a message from Maria, the Jets' assault on her is wince-inducing.
The intensity of these sequences is only enhanced by the fact that they are preceded by "Somewhere," a standard that has become something of a chestnut. But when sung in a beautiful boy soprano by Nicholas Barasch, it sparkles with an innocence and hopefulness that touches before cruelly disappearing into the eddy of hatred and prejudice.
If theatergoers feel themselves hurtled along with the lovers to the show's tragic conclusion, Laurents' judicious trims to his original book, economical to start, may be one reason why. Another factor may be the new Spanish translations provided by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of In the Heights. While non-bilingual audience members will not lose their way with the plot of the emotions, they will find themselves experiencing a disorientation in moments that's similar to what Maria, Tony and their friends are finding with one another's cultures.
Given how well the revisions work and the truly compelling performances from Scaglione and Cavanaugh, it's difficult to not wish that some of the other principal performances were more compelling. Both Cody Green and George Akram, playing Jets' leader Riff and Sharks' leader Bernardo, respectively, offer solid, but unremarkable, interpretations of the characters whose animosity for one another truly dooms the lovers for whom audiences care and cheer from the moment they meet.
---- Andy Propst
West Side Story plays at the Palace Theatre (1564 Broadway). Evening performances are Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm. Matinees are Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $46.50 - $121.50 and can be purchased by calling 212-307-4100 or by visiting www.Ticketmaster.com. Further information is available online at www.BroadwayWestSideStory.com.
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