When I first saw the original production of “West Side Story” on Broadway in 1957 I enjoyed it, but had no idea that it was going to become one of the seminal works of American musical theater, going even beyond opera to advance the plot through music and dance as well as lyrics.
At the time, there was a rage for “modernizing” the classics and “Romeo and Juliet” was no exception. The plot and message were “Love will find a way” and “Can’t we just get along?” and the action required a heavy dose of willing suspension of disbelief. Monty Python loved gang members dancing and bursting spontaneously into song.
That being said, three men of genius, Leonard Bernstein, who was also working on “Candide,” for the music, Jerome Robbins for the choreography, and Stephen Sondheim for the lyrics, managed to pull it off, creating a masterpiece that continues to enthrall audiences.
Hal Prince also deserves credit for producing “West Side Story” when no one would touch it with a 10-foot pole: “Too depressing” and “un-singable,” with the augmented fourth in “Maria,” which has since become the example of the tri-tone or “the devil in music” for students worldwide.
The new Broadway National Tour production, directed by David Saint, is spectacular, taking full advantage of Robbins’ choreography, updated by Joey McKneely and featuring Maryjoanna Grisso and Addison Reid Coe as Maria and Tony.
The traveling production is a spin-off of a recent successful Broadway revival that attempted to make the story more “authentic” by translating many of the songs and street scenes into Spanish, something that proved a little overwhelming for theater-goers unfamiliar with the plot. Most of the lyrics gradually reverted to English as the show went on, but it still retains a more Latin flavor than the original.
One pleasant effect of the Latinization is gorgeous and colorful costumes which add to the atmosphere of what is almost a ballet with lyrics.
Coe as Tony has the clarity and projection to make songs such as “Maria” both understandable and emotionally powerful. Grisso as Maria looks the part and is also a good actress, showing her character’s yearning to get out from under a male-dominated culture. She was particularly striking in the dream ballet sequence “Somewhere.”
Michelle Alvez as Anita sometimes stole the show. She exemplifies the talents required of everyone in this production, great dancing, acting ability and a strong vocal range. Her “America” was quirky, offbeat and rhythmically exciting and her duet with Maria in “A Boy LIke That” was one of the high points of the evening.
The rest of the cast supports the principals with fantastic energy, and the innovative set design is head and shoulders above what one sees with most traveling companies. The pit orchestra, under J. Michael Duff, was first rate.
There are two more performances scheduled Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. Even those who know the work backward and forward will appreciate the flavor of the new show.
Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at [email protected]