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April 19, 2011

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 ...

the bilingual element in this version, which led some Anglos to send him hate mail.

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.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Drama Queens, Hippodrome


1 post • Page 1 of 1
The new Broadway Stage Revival of West Side Story-My Take:
by mplo » Mon Jun 20, 2011 5:51 pm

The Broadway stage revival of West Side Story that my sister in law, my niece and I saw yesterday afternoon was enjoyable, but, being a devout fan of the film version of WSS who's also seen several really good stage productions of West Side Story prior to seeing this one, there were a number of things that bothered me about this particular revival of the Broadway stage version of West Side Story:

A) The finger-snapping and the Jet gang whistles, which, imho, were a rather vital part of the story in the stage production and the film version, were taken out of this revival of West Side Story altogether. It's a shame, because it's sort of messing with a classic.

B) It's all very well to have the Sharks speaking in Spanish, which is an interesting idea on the face of it, but this, too, is another example of messing with a classic.

C) Having seen a number of other stage productions of West Side Story that I found very good, I also felt that, while the dancing was good, and some of the voices were good in this latest WSS stage production, I have never before seen a production of West Side Story that sort of screamed at you pretty much the whole time, and that was so overly emoted by the various characters. Inotherwords, this particular production was somewhat bombastic for my tastes. Moreover, Tony's singing voice sounded very artificial, with very slow, wide vibratos that one could practically skip-rope through (if one gets the drift), plus Tony's singing voice sounded really forced in many places.

D) The basic musical score was retained, and it was interestingly, a somewhat more jazzed up flavor, but it did sound somewhat shrill and tinny in many places.

E) In both the film version of West Side Story and the several other stage productions of WSS that I've seen prior to this particular production, several Jets and Sharks come together in the end to carry Tony's body off after he's been shot, providing a ray of hope, and hinting of a possibility of reconciliation between both sides. Unfortunately, this production of West Side Story lacked that scene in the end, which was sort of a downer.

Please note: This post of mine has been cross-posted from, the West Side Story section. It's my writing, and only my own.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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