It’s the Jets vs. the Sharks once again but in a new Latino-enhanced fight that will determine whether “West Side Story” retains its status as a landmark musical. Author Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins collaborated brilliantly, if also heatedly, on this musical inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” They created a show in 1957 that has stood the test of time and remains as one of the musical theater’s most emotionally embracing musicals. Emotions run both caliente and frio in this close to perfect revival in which Puerto Rican Spanish has been integrated into the spoken text and sung lyrics.
The Spanish element perceptively and significantly distinguishes this revival from the last Broadway revival in 1980 as well as from the numerous other professional, high school, and community theater productions put on around the world during the past 42 years. This refreshed staging proves how strongly the basic vision of the collaborators holds up in the face of political, social, or demographic changes; perhaps even more so in the inherent universality of the musical’s theme — the power of romantic love to defy family and the world (as it mirrors “Romeo and Juliet”) remains its driving force.
The passing of time may have actually helped the show’s relatively dated view of New York’s juvenile gang culture. While no admirer of the musical is likely to be overly concerned with this, there has been considerable buzz created by the changes made by Laurents, who at the age of 91 also decided it was time for him to be at the helm of this revival. Whatever 21st century resonances have been impressed or augmented, “West Side Story” remains a terrific and exciting show.
An expressionistic rather than a realistic toughness has always girded Laurent’s conception. This gives almost any respectful staging a lot of leverage, perhaps none more sensible a touch than having the Puerto Rican characters speak in colloquial Spanish. If the bilingual approach might seem like a revelation, the interpolation of it sounds totally natural and organic to the libretto. Amazingly when Maria (Josefina Scaglione) sings the lilting waltz “Siento Hermosa” (formerly rendered as “I Feel Pretty”) with the support of her girlfriends, what was once faintly anachronistic now resonates with a newly vibrant sense of Latina sisterhood.
Much credit is due “In the Heights” writer Lin-Manuel Miranda for integrating Latino Spanish so expertly into the libretto. Apparently English supertitles (projected translations) were tried in Washington and quickly deemed unnecessary. The only other song in which Spanish has completely replaced English is “A Boy Like That,” Anita’s passionately sung rebuke to Maria for choosing a native New Yorker over a Puerto Rican. Her rage is more intensely empowered by her cultural identity.
Perhaps even more courageous are the stretches of Spanish dialogue that now work splendidly to further define the Jets in a community that treats them as intruders and second-class citizens. In Laurents’ care and firmly committed direction, the tragic underpinnings that gird the plot remain as passionately considered as are the tender and soaring romantic episodes. Laurents and choreographer Joey McKneely (who has reproduced Robbins’ original choreography) have fired up the large and terrifically lean, mean, and good-looking company into a formidable confederation of Jets and Sharks.
The violent rumbles seem more violent than ever, the pulse-quickening challenge dance at the gym, Tony and Maria’s lyrical escape dream ballet, and all the other integrated dances embrace the show with both moments of grace and bolts of danger. For all its tinkering, the success of this revival is that it remains in synch with the heartbeat of the original. One can assume that little tinkering has been done with the original choreography although the gang members are perhaps more ferociously and evocatively engaged in the rape scene.
It may be a character stretch from playing Joe Kennedy Jr. in “Grey Gardens” to Tony in “West Side Story,” but Matt Cavenaugh makes the transition relatively well with the required good looks and an excellent voice that beautifully fulfills the needs of the octave-spanning “Maria.” Twenty-one-year-old Scaglione, a trained opera singer who hails from Argentina, cannot be faulted for being hermosa or singing like an angel. There is, ironically, nothing about her looks that is remotely Latino. Go figure. Perhaps a change of makeup would do the trick. While both Cavenaugh and Scaglione give the impression they are a pair of ill-fated preppies on spring break, they are dramatically and musically gifted enough to draw us into their enveloping passion.
It may not be a stretch for the tall, leggy, and sexy Karen Olivo, who originated the role of Vanessa in “In the Heights,” to give the role of Anita its fiery and feisty due, especially in the exhilaratingly danced “America.” Cody Green, as the antagonistic Riff, has the option and uses it to steal the thunder from everyone in every scene in which his “Cool” explodes. George Akram as the vengeful Bernardo, and all the accompanying gang members give an unchallengeable accounting of who they are at this moment in time.
Also excellent are Greg Vinkler as the besieged drug store proprietor, Michael Mastro as the funnier-than-usual high school principal, and Lee Sellars and Steve Bassett, as the biased and racist law enforcers. Additional pleasure is derived from the lush sound of the 28 musicians, under the direction Patrick Vaccarielo, who are not only in the pit but also in two of the front side boxes. James Youman’s mostly grey settings may not serve as an invitation to visit the upper West Side, but the various locations from the street to under the highway expressionistically provide a formidable frame for this forever stunning musical. ***
“West Side Story,” Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway. $46.50 to $121.50. 212-307-4100.