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West Side Story -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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Venue: Palace Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

The idea that a musical as brilliant as "West Side Story" would require reinventing seems a bit dubious, and the doubts are confirmed by the new Broadway revival. Reconceived and staged by its original book writer Arthur Laurents to achieve a new level of grittiness, this production features a lot of tweaks -- most notably the use of Spanish for two of the songs and some of the dialogue -- that don't add appreciably to its impact.

And unlike the 91-year-old Laurents' recent smash revival of "Gypsy," this production is further undercut by some significant deficiencies in the staging and performances.

Despite the production's problems, this 1957 musical updating of "Romeo and Juliet" set on the then-tough streets of Manhattan's Upper West Side still packs plenty of punch thanks to the brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and the legendary choreography of Jerome Robbins.

Laurents has attempted to toughen up the proceedings, stripping away some of the cartoonishness and making the rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks decidedly more ruthless. For instance, in the scene when Anita attempts to pass a message along to Tony on Maria's behalf, the Jets' abuse of her turns into a near-rape.

Numerous other changes are evident. The "Gee, Officer Krupke" number is less of a comic romp (and far less entertaining for it). The finale has been rethought, with Maria melodramatically waving a gun at the gang members and the final image of Tony's dead body being carried off eliminated in the interests of "realism."

Much has been made of the use of Spanish in the production. "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That" have been transformed into "Siento Hermosa" and "Un Hombre Asi," respectively, with Lin-Manuel Miranda of "In the Heights" providing the translations. And the Puerto Rican characters frequently slip into their native dialect, though not so much that the story details get lost on non-bilingual audience members.

The results are interesting but not particularly revelatory and more often come across as gimmicky than anything else.

The casting is similarly problematic. Maria is played by 21-year-old Argentine newcomer Josefina Scaglione, who sings beautifully and certainly conveys the character's youthful innocence but who comes up somewhat short in the acting department. Matt Cavenaugh, previously seen on Broadway in the John Travolta role in the musical version of "Urban Cowboy," is a bland Tony whose vocals too frequently fail to galvanize.

The supporting players are by and large more effective. George Akram is a commanding Bernardo, Karen Olivo a sexy and dynamic Anita and Cody Green a terrific Riff. Best of all is Curtis Holbrook, who brings high-voltage charisma to his turn as Action.

Robbins' choreography has been slavishly reproduced by Joey McKneely, and while it's still magnificent, the lack of the master's hand is evident by the fact it fails to make the impact here than it has in earlier versions.
Disappointing, too, are the color-coded costumes and the unimaginative scenery that feels more redolent of a touring company than a first-class Broadway production.

This "West Side Story" should find receptive audiences despite any critical naysaying. But much like the recent Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls," it's hard not to wish that it wasn't a whole lot better.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Cast: Matt Cavenaugh, Josefina Scaglione, Karen Olivo, Cody Green, George Akram, Curtis Holbrook
Book-director: Arthur Laurents
Choreography reproduction: Joey McKneely
Scenic designer: James Youmans
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier