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Reviewed by:
  • West Side Story
  • Derek Miller
West Side Story. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Arthur Laurents. National Theatre, Washington, DC. 2 January 2009.

Many recent musical revivals—such as John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd and Company, in which the actors played instruments—have called attention to the theatricality of musical theatre. The West Side Story revival I saw during a pre-Broadway engagement took the opposite approach, accentuating instead the play’s “realism,” most conspicuously by having Puerto Rican characters speak and sing in Spanish, courtesy of translations by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of In the Heights fame). Under the direction of the prolific Arthur Laurents, recently acclaimed for his Gypsy revival (for which, like West Side Story, he wrote the book), this production promised the unique opportunity of a new take on a masterpiece from one of the show’s creators. Laurents’s vision incorporated Spanish translations and some new staging in an attempt to locate the realistic pulse within the musical’s conspicuously theatrical frame. Yet this first Broadway-bound revival in almost thirty years demonstrated that the show’s vitality lies in the ecstatic abandon of Leonard Bernstein’s masterful, jazzy score and Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography. Despite Laurents’s efforts, West Side Story’s “realistic” presentation of teenage anger and dissociation in the book scenes failed to match the theatrical heat generated by the musical numbers.

The use of Spanish was the production’s most prominent realistic gesture, providing Puerto Rican characters a patina of authenticity. The language was put to good use in the “Tonight” quintet, in which it helped articulate distinct gang identities: as each group or character sang of what awaited them after the coming fight, the Sharks sang in Spanish, clearly distinguishing them from the Jets, even as the Sharks’ musical integration in the quintet affirmed the entwined fates of all the singers. The successful deployment of Spanish thus depended simultaneously on the reality of the Sharks’ native tongue and the theatrical artifice of five-part vocal writing. Similarly, “Siento Hermosa” (“I Feel Pretty”) captured the song’s exuberance not only because Miranda’s Spanish lyrics adhered to Stephen Sondheim’s original rhyme scheme, but also because some vocal parts were cleverly reassigned so that the musical structure mimicked and amplified the lyrics’ mockery of Maria. [End Page 479]

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Karen Olivo (Anita) and George Akram (Bernardo) in West Side Story. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

Unfortunately, except for those few fleeting moments, Spanish came across as an obfuscating contrivance, particularly in book scenes like the long encounter between Anita (the excellent Karen Olivo) and Maria (Josefina Scaglione) after Bernardo’s death. As I speak no Spanish, the scene’s nuanced emotional fabric was lost on me. Thus realism only obscured the narrative line, particularly in the dialogue-heavy second act in which Spanish appeared more frequently. Moreover, the use of Spanish was inconsistent. “America” would have been better served if Rosalia had sung her praise of Puerto Rico in Spanish, to contrast with Anita’s English disdain for the island; but the entire song was in English. And given the ethnically “authentic” use of Spanish, it is harder to overlook the casting of Josefina Scaglione, an Argentinian, to play the Puerto Rican Maria. Overall, the use of Spanish was neither comprehensive enough nor compelling enough as a realistic device to overcome its serious dramatic deficiencies. (In August, 2009, the show’s producers, acknowledging a weakened dramatic impact, announced that “A Boy Like That” and “I Feel Pretty” would revert primarily to their English versions.)

The show’s attempt to emphasize the gangs’ anger ran into similar problems. The performers, mining the text for its emotional rather than its rhythmic core, left the elegantly stylized tough-guy patois of Laurents’s dialogue sounding merely awkward and dated. Riff (Cody Green) had a look and manner all too reminiscent of a Disney teen idol, which sabotaged his credibility as a menacing gang leader. And stiff, lackluster performances by actors portraying the adult characters gave the younger actors little to fight against, undermining the age conflict that seethes throughout the...


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pp. 479-481
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