West Side Story: A Review

An enormous thank you to my friend Ruth who took me tonight to see the new revival of West Side Story. After a string of disappointing shows on Broadway it was great to finally see a show that made me happy (mostly.)

This is an absolutely GORGEOUS production. Jim Youmans left a lot to be desired in his set for Gypsy, his other collaboration with Arthur Laurents, but this set was a pure home run. The angles the color (or lack thereof) the texture... a beautiful collection scenes. The story of this show is based in the gang wars around 66th street on New York's West Side, in the tenements that were demolished to build Lincoln Center. Youmans seems to have shifted the action uptown a bit, specifically to the area of 125th St. underneath the 1 train. He directly lifted aspects of the set from that train bridge, combined with the softly textured and barely there backdrop of the George Washington Bridge. He also manages to pull off something that is incredibly difficult for a designer: making a scene shift meaningful. The shift into the set for the rumble "under the highway" was breathtaking and ominous and perfectly weighted. The huge diagonal shaft of the underside of the bridge coming in, appearing to drift in from a fog, and the lowering of the chain-link fence curtain perefectly set the mood for what was about to transpire onstage.

The costumes left aside the standard red and blue signifiers for the two gangs and instead went with orange and purple. There were touches of sage green and tans in everything, in all a very pleasing pallette. Tony and Maria were dressed in a deep teal blue, the only real blue onstage anywhere, though Tony does don an orange jacket for the fateful rumble. Using the secondary pallette rather than primaries was inspired.

The most beautiful thing on stage was "Somewhere." The cast in bleached out barely pastel shades of their gang colors, Tony and Maria in brilliant white, the stage basically bare against a stark, brightly lit cyc, and the song sung by a child in pure clean tones. That song alone is worth the price of admission.

Some words about the cast: Cody Green as Riff was a dream. Cody was the winner of Bravo's "Step It Up And Dance" and this show proves why. He looks like a short, squat brute, but he has the amazing ability to somehow magically lengthen his legs when he kicks, and creates these shapes that are stunning. It was a sad moment to realize that Riff's death meant that I wouldn't get to see him in the second act. The other stand out for me was Ryan Steele as Baby John. He somehow carries a tension in his dance that ripples out to the tips of his fingers and toes in every movement. He even snaps his fingers (which is important in this show as anyone who has seen it knows) in a way that moves his entire hand in a miniature dance. The vocal star of the show is Karen Olivo as Anita, a voice like a ringing bell that can carries humor, or emotion, and her rage after the rape scene is visceral. By far the strongest voice onstage in any scene.

I do have one complaint: the Spanish. Laurents chose to make about 50% of the Puerto Ricans' dialogue in Spanish, and chose to do "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That" entirely in Spanish. While I understand the choice... these are immigrants after all, and they probably would speak in a mix of English and Spanish (most of the people in my neighborhood do...) but it leaves the non-Spanish speaking audience a bit cheated. If you are unfamiliar with the show (and it hasn't been on Broadway in near 30 years) a big chunk of story is missing. How does Maria convince Anita that her love for Tony outweighs his having killed Anita's fiance? I don't know. It was in Spanish. Even "I Wanna Be In America" falls a bit flat because the pro-Puerto Rico arguments are made in Spanish, so the counter points and patter and puns make no sense. Yes, intellectually I get that he is alienating the audience as the immigrants are alientaed by their surroundings, and blah blah blah... I want to hear the story in a way that I can understand it. At least toss me the bone of some supertitles.

All in all, the best show I've seen in a while. Recomended.

2 Response to "West Side Story: A Review"

  • Katherine Says:

    I have to say that due in part to your review, I did some additional research and have booked tickets to see this when I am in New York City next month. I'm looking forward to having my first Broadway experience.

  • Cully Says:

    Oooh! Well, please let me know how you enjoyed it. I think it is a good choice for a first show.