Monday, March 30, 2009

West Side Story - A Review

Background. I'm a show freak and mighty damned proud to admit it. I've seen everything, over the years. Twice (if not more). With one notable exception, that is. West Side Story. Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Steve Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Choreographed and directed by Jerome Robbins (with the able assistance of Peter Gennaro).

It opened on Broadway in 1957 and was movied in 1960. Like many, I grew up knowing the show only on the basis of the movie. And although it was shot on the mean streets of upper Hell's Kitchen, on the very site where today's Lincoln Center stands, it was, well, it was a movie. I love movies. You can do things in movies which you can't do on stage (CGI). But the theater is my first love. It's real. Once that orchestra starts playing, come hell or high water, the SHOW MUST GO ON. And you've only got one chance to do it right ... for the audience that night. You can't beat the immediacy of it.

And so it was on Friday night. When they posted the opening notice last November I was all over the box-office website like a bird on a June bug, and booked two seats for the front mezzanine for last Friday. Not bad for a week after the opening.

How was it?

Indescribably wonderful. Artie Laurents (at 94, God bless him) did a great job of re-creating the show from memory.

The leads were adorable, able and sweetly (nearly) adolescent. Maria is beautifully played by Josefina Scaglione who is a 21 year old from Argentina where, apparently, she's enormously popular and operatically trained (it shows!). In addition to being quite beautiful, she was fragile, vulnerable and highly expressive. Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), is a ruggedly handsome young man who has got a phenomenal vocal range (it's a very tough role to sing -- Bernstein liked to murder his male ingenues voices), and he acquitted himself beautifully with a pure, sweet upper range, when required.

The other roles were handled with the sort of professionalism you'd expect from a Broadway show.

But the real hero of the evening, as far as I was concerned, was Joey McKneely, whom you've probably never heard of. Well, it was his job to do the nearly impossible, i.e. to recreate, as exactly as possible, Jerome Robbins' complicated choreography. And recreate it he does. Before this he did "The Boy from Oz", the story of Peter Allen which starred Hugh Jackman, a few years back. Somewhere along the way he had become friends with the late Jerome Robbins who, apparently, taught him all the dances.

Because everyone has heard about it, I want to talk a little about the infusion of Spanish into the show. Rest assured that it's not a distraction, it's an enhancement. We all know the songs inside and out, so that when Maria bursts into song with "Siento Hermosa!", we all know that her new-found love is making her feel as beautiful as our first made all of us feel. There is some Spanish in the dialog scenes, but you never have the sense of missing out on something. You always know what's going on.

I knew I was liking the show because my "butt alarm" didn't go off once during the nearly 3 hour long performance. I was transfixed, held, illuminated and entertained from beginning to end.

There was only a single sour note in the whole evening, and that didn't even occur on stage.

After the show, my friend and I waited outside the stage door to say "hi" to a friend of mine in the orchestra. As we waited patiently by the curb, the Co-chairman of Fox Films, Tom Rothman and his obnoxious clan, pushed me and my friend off the sidewalk into the busy street so that they could crowd around their lousy brat who, apparently, was one of the Jets.

Fans. Sheesh.

If you're planning on coming to NY, try (desperately) to get tickets to see "West Side Story". You won't regret it as long as you avoid the stage door after the show.


harrietv said...

A bit of West Side Story trivia: Carol Lawrence, who played Maria, auditioned as a singer-dancer for the role. Her dancing was excellent, but they weren't sure she should sing.

So she did "Un Bel Di" from "Madama Butterfly," because she also had operatic training. It was excellent...and then they didn't want to let her dance.

You can find knuckleheads anywhere.

JoyZeeBoy said...

I didn't know that story. Thanks for posting it, Harriet!

I was thinking, after the show, how different it was in those days -- when shows were usually cast with either dancers (good) who sang (passably) or singers (good) who danced (passably) -- but when WSS came along they needed a cast who were not only good at both, but were great at both.

And that's rare.