Wondering why the wow factor eludes 'West Side Story' revival
Since attending opening night of "West Side Story" at the Hippodrome last week, I've been wondering why there was so little of a wow factor in the performance.
(I don't usually mull over such things for so long, but, hey, I'm technically on vacation, which means I get easily distracted. It's actually the same when I'm not on vacation. I just have an excuse now.)
If you missed my review, make your life complete and catch up with it here.
First, let me hasten to say that "West Side Story" virgins would do well to catch this national touring production. Revivals of the brilliant musical don't come around every day, given how big a show it is in terms of personnel and technical requirements.
And this one, which started out in D.C. three years ago and had a respectable Broadway run thereafter, provides a welcome opportunity to reaffirm how much gold is in this work -- the sizzling Bernstein score, the brilliantly athletic Jerome Robbins choreography. There's certainly enough quality in the production to make for an entertaining experience. But it just doesn't pack the punch it should. For all of the high-flying dance routines, the show doesn't soar high enough.
Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the musical, directed the original in 1957 and directed this revival, has a lot to say about revisiting "West Side Story" in his most recent book, "Mainly on Directing." He is especially proud of ...
Even though the use of Spanish was reduced after the revival opened on Broadway, it is apparently still too much for some. I've heard complaints about this since the Hippodrome run started.
I rather like the attempt to remind audiences of the separate and hardly equal worlds inhabited by the rival gangs who propel the plot of "West Side Story." The world is still divided into factions, after all.
Laurents also strove to make the musical more realistic by emphasizing the violent nature of the gangs and making sure that casting decisions were made as much, or even more, for acting ability than vocal and dance skills.
I'm all for fine acting in a musical, but I really, really want good singing, too. I didn't hear much of that. The Tony came to grief on many a top note; the Maria had a tight, brittle sound. It's kind of hard to get all the way into this show without having two thoroughly winning voices leading the way.
Then there's the contemporary angle in this staging. Rather than give everyone '50s duds, the costuming fudges the time period. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but, in practice, the gangs end up looking a little too neat and, well, un-gang-like (just as they do in the movie version of the musical). I'm not the first to notice that the guys in this show could be mistaken for models bounding in from a Gap photo shoot.
I wonder if it would have been smarter to embrace the original time-setting of the show head-on, to accept that it was a product of its time. There could still be grittier things added to underline points that had to be smoothed over onstage in 1957, but that gritty edge wouldn't have to get as vulgar and even sophomoric as it does here.
The messages in "West Side Story" (or, for that matter, it's source material, "Romeo and Juliet") don't really need to be punched up with so much contemporary behavior. I found the blatancy in this revival -- all those people giving the finger, all that humping -- only served to date the production, rather than underline the timeless quality of a great American musical.
'WEST SIDE STORY' PHOTOS (by Joan Marcus) COURTESY OF NATIONAL TOURING PRODUCTION