Something’s Coming, It’s Not All Good

The following is a departure from my usual blog (which I have neglected for too long) in order to give voice to this pithy critique of the newly envisioned West Side Story production on Broadway. Full disclosure, for those who don’t know, the critic is my husband who has definite ideas about this musical production. Also, please note that the opinions expressed are not necessarily mine! We argued all the way home on the train. In a good way.

It’s difficult to know what the creators of West Side Story, currently in previews at the Broadway Theater in New York City, were thinking when they decided on the concept that is the current show.  If their intent was to bring the 1961 movie into modern times, it seems like they didn’t make it all the way.

If we are to believe these are NYC gangs in anything close to 2019, I highly doubt the terms “buddy-boy” and “daddy-o” would be in their lexicon.

As someone who grew up with the memory of Russ Tamblyn as Riff, Natalie Wood as Maria, George Chakiris as Bernardo and Richard Beymer as Tony, and, as a young boy, wanted to move to NYC and join a gang so I could learn to sing and dance too, I was excited to see what a “reimagined” West Side Story would look like.  Unfortunately, it isn’t pretty, witty or bright.

To be sure, the Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics continues to stand the test of time. The orchestra did a magnificent job and stayed true to the original score and for that reason alone, the show is worth seeing.  

The bare chests of the modern-day Riff seemed unnecessary and his edict to the Jets to wear something nice to the dance at the gym seemed like it should have meant more than putting on clean jeans.  Even their opposing Sharks seemed to miss the mark of their Sunday bests.  The dance at the gym fell flat with the absence of the pastel poodle skirts for the girls and razor think ties and jackets for the men.

While the individual dancers were good at their craft, the choreography seemed to lack the ballet quality that made the movie a joy to watch.  Both the dance at the gym and what was supposed to be the roof-top in “America” did not have the style and grace I was waiting for.  The back and forth of the Sharks and Jets in the gym, and then the men and women on the rooftop was hardly evident.  They seemed to perform more as a single group, rather than friendly opposing sides.

All of this could be considered minor artistic differences, but there were several issues that just seemed inexcusable.

In the movie, the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number is sung in front of Doc’s store with Riff taking the lead and being the subject of the Jet’s complaints. In this current version, the number is performed after the rumble.  At this point, Riff is dead and the thought that the Jets would be in the mood to sing a light-hearted song seems misplaced and breaks the solemn mood that leads to the eventual climax of the show.

To be fair, it appears the original 1957 Broadway production also has this number after the rumble so they are trying to stay true to the original script. However, movie directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins apparently saw the flaw in the placement and perhaps the current director, Ivo van Hove should have taken their lead and moved it back.

In the same vein, in the movie, when Anita goes to Doc’s to warn Tony that Chino is looking for him, she is draped in a black shawl, having just lost the love of her life.  In today’s version, she hasn’t even bothered to change out of her jeans before going to the store.  It’s a minor point but one that seems to detract from the unspoken grief everyone is feeling in the moment. However, if the Jets can break into song and dance having just lost their leader, I guess we can forgive Anita this minor transgression.

Perhaps what bothered me most was the use of video throughout the production.  While the opening scene with the tight shots of the faces of the Jets and Sharks was powerful, the video screen quickly became over-powering, and made it difficult to decide whether to watch the stage or the screen.

The background footage of the streets of New York were beautiful but the movement of the video combined with the stationary action on the stage was confusing at best. The addition of the ballet in the distance of the video was a beautiful touch but was quickly broken when a cameraman also appeared in the frame.

The bare-chested cameramen walking across the stage at the start of the rumble added nothing to the scene and broke the intended tension of the situation.

The use of video was reminiscent of the recent production of Network.  In that case, the video was not distracting, but played a critical piece in the production and enhanced the story.  I couldn’t help thinking that someone who saw Network loved the treatment there and wanted to integrate it here.  News flash. . ., it didn’t work.

Also, Doc’s store and the dress shop were buried behind the video screen, with our only real view being the narrow entrance revealed by panels that slid open at the appropriate times.  Most of the activity and dialog in those settings could only be viewed on the screen and left me trying to decide if this was supposed to be a show or a movie. There is so much potential for interesting staging which would bring the audience into those venues, but they were missed and I clearly felt like I was on the outside, looking in.

To be fair, all these comparisons are against the movie, since I never saw the 1957 Broadway production and this was the first week of previews, so there is ample time to improve before the official opening in February.

I think with a few changes, some minor, some more substantial, the latest revival of this beloved classic will be the show everyone will want to see and before heading to the theater will be telling their friends, “tonight, won’t be like any night.”

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