‘West Side Story’ showing its age in latest tour version
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org June 12, 2013 8:02AM
Michelle Alves as Anita (center) in the national touring production of "West Side Story."
‘WEST SIDE STORY’
When: Through Sunday
Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Updated: June 13, 2013 12:25AM
Gang violence. Immigration issues. Racism. Bilingual street life. Latin beat music. Calls for sexual abstinence in teens with raging hormones. Gender confusion. The impotence of cops and school authorities alike.
Sound like a riff on today’s headlines? Absolutely. But it just happens to be a catalogue of the themes running through “West Side Story,” the musical by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents that first arrived on Broadway in 1957 and put a “mean streets of New York” spin on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
The touring company production of the show that opened Tuesday night for a brief engagement at the Oriental Theatre is based on the 2009 Broadway revival for which many of the familiar songs were infused with Spanish lyrics. (The translated lyrics are the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the same guy who penned the lyrics for this past Sunday’s big opening number for the Tony Awards).
Directed by David Saint, this “West Side Story” (staged on James Youman’s artful scenic design, which is beautifully lit by Howell Binkley) is the latest non-Equity production (at Equity ticket prices) to arrive under the Broadway in Chicago banner, and it might best be described as a very accomplished but uneven conservatory-level effort. The dancing is excellent, but the acting and singing is something short of stellar, with accents that are all over the place, and diction that is spotty at best. (A technically weak balance of singing, speaking and orchestra doesn’t help matters.)
But first things first: Does “West Side Story,” despite all its thematic relevance, actually hold up? Not quite. Despite its ravishing score and fervent emotions, there is something about this show, so groundbreaking in its time, that now seems at once timeless yet hopelessly dated. Maybe it’s just the “daddy-o” slang that jars the ear, but for some reason the 1950s aura of those “Jersey Boys” manages to seem far more authentic than these Upper West Side “hoodlums.”
Yet the score is glorious and the dancing still captivates. And watching this production (with Jerome Robbins’ original choreography “reproduced” by Joey McKneely), is a reminder of just how many crucial scenes spin the story without any language at all. The opening sequence, in which the Jets and their Puerto Rican counterparts, the Sharks, vie for turf is all muscular bravado — a full-fledged jazz ballet. The dance at the gym is a marvel of swing-meets-mambo rhythms and swagger. “America” is full of Latin fire. “Cool” is full of snap. And the fight choreography of “The Rumble” is as good as any duel.
Petite, raven-haired MaryJoanna Grisso has a lovely voice and easy grace as Maria, and her fire escape balcony scene with Tony (Addison Reid Coe) is full of sweetness and desire. Michelle Alves dances well as Anita, but her words are largely garbled until her very last scene at Doc’s soda shop. It doesn’t help that her lover, Bernardo (Andres Acosta), generates no particular spark, but neither does Riff (Theo Lencicki), the leader of the Jets.
All that said, there is a whole generation or two that have never seen a stage version of this show, or even the movie. This can serve as an introduction.