By Manning Harris
Book by Arthur Laurents; music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. If you were looking for an impressive pedigree in the creation of a musical play, you couldn’t find any loftier thoroughbreds than these four men. They sat down as young men in 1957 and created the greatest fusion of music, dance, and drama that has ever graced a stage.
If you missed the recent revival of “West Side Story” on Broadway (as I did), you have a chance to see it now at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, January 30. But it’s more than a revival: Mr. Laurents and Mr. Sondheim, ceaselessly inventive artists that they are, decided to give the show a new burst of cultural authenticity and have the Puerto Rican Sharks speak and sing in their native Spanish for selected lines and lyrics. It works, in spades. And you don’t have to speak Spanish; the production is still in English. It just has a more brilliant Latino flavor for the Shark scenes.
If you’re not familiar with this landmark show, this “jukebox Manhattan opera,” as one critic ecstatically called the original, fret not. Think Romeo and Juliet set amidst the street gang violence of the Jets and the sharks in late 1950’s New York. Think of such Bernstein-Sondheim classics as “Tonight,” “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” and many more. “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.” The show is at once joyous, vibrant, and heartbreakingly tragic. “It’s a new “West Side Story” for our time,” as one critic wrote.
And think love! Mr. Laurents has said, “This is a story of love that cannot survive in a world of bigotry and violence.” The central love story is that of Tony and Maria; but Mr. Laurents says the entire production is motivated by love, beginning with the first scene between Tony and Riff. If Tony “loves him like a brother” and Riff is willing to die for him, their relationship must be carefully and organically established for the tragic story to work, and it is. As for Tony and Maria, their passion for each other is so intense that they can hardly stop kissing long enough to sing “Tonight.”
This “Broadway Across America” production features a young cast that is gloriously talented and so believable and beautiful that your heart aches for all of them: Tony, Kyle Harris; Maria, Ali Ewoldt, Anita, Michelle Aravena; Bernardo, German Santiago; Riff, Joseph J. Simeone; Action, Drew Foster; Anybodys, Alexandra Frohlinger, and many others. There are no weak links here.
The choreography is electrifying—as good as I’ve ever seen in any musical, anywhere—and it is reproduced by Joey McKneely. The direction is by David Saint, based on the Broadway revival direction by Mr. Laurents.
Perhaps most impressive in this knockout show is the sense of tragic inevitability that sneaks up on you; you know what’s coming and you wish you could change the ending; but I think the ancient Greeks (who invented tragic drama) would approve.
You know how big the Fox is; get the best seats available. The closer you are, the more moved you’ll be. The orchestra and sound are excellent. Don’t let the cold weather stop you; there’s transcendent passion, heat, soaring music, and tragic beauty in this “West Side Story” that even the iconic 1961 movie cannot duplicate—and I never thought I’d say that. Go.