The National Theatre is home to a good-as-gold Golden Anniversary production of the Laurents-Bernstein-Sondheim-Robbins classic musical West Side Story. For those who missed the 1980s revival or were too young for the 1957 original, it’s hard to imagine a more visually stunning production.
The soaring score, here under the musical direction/supervision of Patrick Vaccariello, will take your breath away. Joey McKneely’s faithful reproduction of the Jerome Robbins choreography married to Leonard Bernstein’s emotionally-charged melodies is a feast for the ears and eyes. If there was an American tradition of demanding scene encores, the run time of this show would likely clock in at well over four hours. Laurents has assembled a young cast fresh from youth-oriented, high energy Broadway and touring shows (such as Grease, Hair, Mama Mia!, Movin’ Out and Footloose) and/or work with the likes of Ricky Martin, Janet Jackson, Usher, Gloria Estefan and Rihanna. These young performers burn the floor with the modern dance and Latin-inspired choreography. From the opening scene, the dance bristles with tension anxious for an outlet and it continues to build in excitement as the show progresses.
It’s often remarked that West Side Story succeeds because the characters of Anita and Bernardo add flare that’s lacking in Maria and white-bread Tony. Both flare and firecracker, Karen Olivo sizzles as Anita and intentionally and otherwise becomes the focus of attention whenever she is on stage. After her captivating performance as Vanessa in the Tony Award-winning In The Heights, she fills Anita’s heels like Cinderella fits that slipper. She’s sassy and sultry with a set of pipes to serve up the song “America” in a style all her own. Hers is definitely an “above the title” performance.
Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh are an attractive couple as Maria and Tony, although some will find Cavenaugh’s looks a bit too squeaky clean for an almost ex-gangbanger. Scaglione, among the many international members of the cast, is a classically trained soprano with an impressive vocal range. Cavenaugh’s voice doesn’t seem naturally suited to Bernstein’s music. Perhaps I’ve heard too many dynamite versions of “Something’s Coming,” but I was not taken with Cavenaugh’s rendition. On the other hand, I warmed to his interpretation of “Maria,” so impressed by his heartfelt, wonder-struck acting of the song that I felt as though I was hearing it for the first time, which was a pleasant revelation. Unfortunately, Scaglione and Cavenaugh seemed a bit vocally mismatched in their duets. To achieve balance, Scaglione appears to be reining in the innate power of her voice while Cavenaugh seems to be charging up his. Their singing together is enjoyable but not remarkably so, while their acting as the star-crossed lovers is pitch perfect.
Cody Green (Riff) and George Akram (Bernardo) set the tone for their gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. With the exception of the second act drug store scene, the Sharks have a more menacing aspect. Their costumes are sleek and dapper, as easily appropriate to the 1950s as to today’s Miami Vice. As in the original, the Jets are decked out in jeans and sneakers – a rebellious look back then but now as tame as a Gap advertisement. To add verisimilitude to this production, Laurents now has Spanish-language selected dialog and lyrics for the Sharks and their dolls, with the translation provided by Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights). This succeeds far more with the dialog than it does with the songs. Whether or not one is familiar with the song “I Feel Pretty,” Scaglione’s performance of “Siento Hermosa” is coquettishly clear; what’s lost is the humor of the teasing remarks of her girlfriends. You know it is funny without knowing why. Less successful is “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” rendered as “Un Hombre Asi/Tengo un Amor.” It’s an opportunity for Anita, in particular, to have a stand out second act moment, but it just doesn’t land with the same emotional impact. Whether sung or spoken, the effect of the Spanish sequences dissipates rapidly whenever a line or phrase of English is abruptly injected to ensure that the audience understands a key plot development.
In addition to the Spanish interpolation, Laurents also aims to make the gangs more authentic. Curtis Holbrook as Action has a noticeably tougher attitude than most, but without overhauling the dialog and/or shifting the story forward in time by several decades, it’s truly tough to cut a skinhead-mean demeanor while uttering 1950s slang (which now seems quaint if not downright cute). For example, “Gee, Officer Krupke” is coarser to be sure, but it is still the comic relief number between the rumble and the rape; like it or not, the Jets [editor’s correction] here are more jovial delinquents than juvenile ones.
James Youmans (who collaborated with director Arthur Laurents on the recent Gypsy revival) assembles fragments of tenements, fire escapes, streets and bridges to fashion an effective urban jungle with sets that swiftly flow from scene to scene, both exteriors and interiors. His set for the rumble scene is a stunning surprise which catapults the audience into the action. Howell Binkley (also part of the Gypsy team) makes the cityscape come to life with light streaming through tenement windows or bathing the set backdrop in colors of the morning or approaching night.
This anniversary West Side Story will be the first opportunity for many to hear a live orchestra play one of musical theatre’s finest scores and to watch an extremely talented young cast perform the timeless choreography of Jerome Robbins. No doubt the name Karen Olivo is soon to be known far and wide.
Running time: 2:30 with one intermission
When: Dec 15 – Jan 17. Tues thru Sat at 8 pm. Sun at 7:30 pm. Matinees: Sat & Sun at 2 pm, plus Wed, Jan 14 at 2 pm
Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $46.50 – $91.50. Premium seats: $151.50 Call 800 447-4700 or visit the website.