by Susan Kepecs
Four days after seeing the touring production of West Side Story's 50th anniversary revival, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 and came to Overture Hall on Tues., Feb. 12, I’m still singing the songs – proof of the old Broadway musical’s artistic potency. Being an old Boomer, I saw the original touring production at the long-gone Erlanger Theater in Chicago with my artsy, bohemian parents in the winter of ’59-60. When the movie came out a year later I saw that, too, more than once. I owned the LP and played the rings off it. My friends and I imitated the play’s linguistic coolness – the Jets snapping their fingers and going “Go, Daddy-O!”
It’s been more decades than I want to count since I’ve thought about West Side Story. Watching the revival Tuesday night I ricocheted constantly between the sheer joy of remembering all the words to all the songs and the shock of recognizing its racist / sexist content – for the first time. West Side Story is a 20th century take on Romeo and Juliet, but it’s built on an ethnic conflict Shakespeare’s lily-white Elizabethan characters could never conceive – the post WWII Puerto Rican migration from the island to New York. The Jets – the “American” gang (though Puerto Rico, a US territory, is “America” too, without the right to vote) – reign supreme. “We’re the Jets! The greatest!” In song, dance, and spoken lyrics the white boys shout at the unfortunate Sharks to “go back home!” Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, is a cartoonish stereotype of a “hot Latina.” She gets gang-raped by the Jets, while no white girl is similarly treated.
Today it seems impossible that the quartet of gay Jewish men who created West Side Story – Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins, four of the greatest talents in 20th century theater – could have been so naïve. Or that the hip, urban audiences of the ‘50s and ‘60s were, too. But if you can shake the antiquated implications of West Side Story and take it as a period piece, the revival (directed by Laurents, who wrote the original script, directed the 2009 production on Broadway, and died in 2011) bears the test of time.
The touring cast was uneven. Marijoanna Grisso, as María, has a lovely, bel canto-ish voice, though the handsome Addison Reid Coe, as Tony, couldn’t hit his high notes, which was distracting. But the Bernstein / Sondheim score is still brilliant. The restaging is pleasantly old-school, simple but clever. The revival’s a teensy bit bilingual, which lends a smidge of new authenticity – and touches of humor – to the action beneath the West Side highway. It tickled my funny bone when one of the Puerto Rican girls told the others that “María está bailando con un gringo que realmente es Polaco,” because I didn’t expect it; I laughed out loud when Gladhand, the social worker character whose job is to smooth relations between the Jets and the Sharks at the dance at the gym, spoke pidgeon Spanglish, accentuating the fact that he didn’t roll his “r’s” – “A little abstinencia, pohr favohr!”
The pinnacle of the play, though, was Joey McKneely’s dusting-off of Jerome Robbins’ spunky choreography – the amazing Robbins was, of course, along with George Balanchine, the quintessential 20th century choreographer. McKneely stuck close to the original, but the dancers in today’s musicals have much better technique than most of their predecessors, lending the dances surprising new power.
I’ll probably never see West Side Story again, but I’m really glad I caught it one last time.