It’s hard to imagine a more talented creative team than director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and when they joined forces for the musical West Side Story, the result was stunning. On opening night in 1957, the Broadway audience gave the cast 16 ovations and, although the show didn’t win the Tony Award for best musical (The Music Man won), it was clear that West Side Story had changed American musical theater forever.
The show offered many innovations. For one thing, the subject matter — an updated telling of the Romeo and Juliet story — was a far cry from the fluffy topics of previous musicals. There was murder, rape, and prejudice, played out against the gritty background of New York’s mean streets. The music was soaring, the lyrics clever and the book heartbreaking.
And there was Jerome Robbins’ brilliant use of dance to create character and move the action forward. Before West Side Story, dance numbers had been used as divertissements, often disconnected from the forward thrust of the plot. In West Side Story, the dance sequences became in integral part of the production, so much so that if the dances are run back to back without any of the straight scenes, the basic story is still clear.
From a 2012 perspective — an age in which musicals deal with bipolar disorder (Next to Normal), drug use (Rent), and a host of other personal or societal problems — it may be hard to appreciate just how groundbreaking West Side Story was. But what is clear from almost any production on stage or film is that this is a masterfully crafted show with universal appeal. The downside is that, over the years, West Side Story has become something of a museum piece, frozen in the less violent and less hostile 1950s.
But when the show’s legendary writer, Arthur Laurents, decided at age 90 to direct a revival of West Side Story, he had the freedom to do it his way rather than Robbins’. The result, now playing at Seattle's Paramount Theatre, is an edgier and more athletic show than the original.
Puerto Rican characters occasionally speak and sing in Spanish, but apart from that, the differences between Laurents' update and the 1957 version won’t be obvious unless one knows the production intimately. The changes from the 1961 movie, however, (which was made with almost no involvement of the creators) are significant.
This revival retains the major flaw of the original — Tony and Maria are too wooden despite being given some of the most beautiful love songs ever written. But on the whole, it’s a triumph of adolescent energy and angst. As befits Robbins’ influence (the concept for the show was his), what stands out are the dance numbers, beginning with the scene-setting, finger-snapping Prologue through to the exuberant dance-off gym scene, the rousing “America,” and the ominous “Cool.”
Joey McKneely has updated the choreography with the approval of the Robbins estate so that it now has a sharper edge, with legs flung out faster, scissor-sharp arms, and rafter-high jumps. The modernized choreography capitalizes on the fact that today’s dancers are capable of greater pyrotechnics than performers of the 50’s. Fortunately, Laurents has kept the stirring fantasy ballet, which was left out of the movie, but is an essential part of communicating the innocence of Tony and Maria’s relationship.
One of the great strengths of West Side Story is also its greatest weakness — namely the lack of star characters. Although Tony and Maria are the focus of the story, they are no more prominent than any of the other characters. If anyone stands out, it’s the feisty Anita, whose brashness is tempered only by her striving to be a full-blooded American. Michelle Aravena as Anita pulls out all the stops and dominates every scene she’s in, although she tends to swallow the ends of her spoken words with the result that some of her more trenchant comments are lost.
Ross Lekites is a gentle, introspective Tony, which belies his role as a former Jet but lends itself to his tender love duets with Evy Ortiz’s Maria. Ortiz is a believable — if somewhat bland — Maria; her singing voice has the tremolo common among today’s musical theater actresses, but which undermines the sweetness of her songs.
This is most evident in the reprise of “Somewhere,” sung by Alexandra Frohlinger as the character Anybodys. Frohlinger’s voice has just the right lightness for this achingly beautiful expression of hope and sadness and makes one wish Frohlinger had more to do and sing than the story allows.
The rest of the cast brings the requisite energy and toughness to the Jets-Sharks confrontation. These are not the nice-guy thugs of the movie, but street-wise ruffians determined to protect their turf; the girlfriends on both sides are appropriately sassy. Although the Sharks’ use of Spanish may be a little overdone in this revival, especially in the second act, the fact that the actors have a Latin background and authentic Spanish accents adds a reality that is appropriate for today, and reinforces West Side Story as a musical theater production for the ages.
If you go: West Side Story, Paramount Theatre, 901 Pine Street, through January 15. Tickets start at $25 and are available at the box office, online at stgpresents.org or tickets.com or by calling 1-877-784-4849.