Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh in WEST SIDE STORY (photo by Joan Marcus)
It can very happily be said, and with a mountain of relief, that WEST SIDE STORY, the most eagerly awaited Broadway show of the season, was indeed worth the wait. There’d been nervous reports about 91-year-old director Arthur Laurents’ decision to use Spanish dialogue and lyrics instead of the English original, dances being cut and I, for one, was wondering if, in a cast otherwise comprised of unknowns, Matt Cavenaugh would be young, fresh and forceful enough in the role of Tony, after already seeing him in URBAN COWBOY, GREY GARDENS and A CATERED AFFAIR.
All of these cavils can mostly be shoved aside. From the very first, thumping note of the score you hear – under the magnificent baton of Patrick Vaccariello – Leonard Bernstein’s music inexorably pulls you in like a whirlpool, sweeping everything before it, and the production more than matches it for excitement and emotion. Like SOUTH PACIFIC, it’s worth the admission price alone just to hear the 28-piece orchestra, in these aurally impoverished days, thrillingly having at what has to be the most brilliantly innovative of all Broadway scores. (Putting the dynamic percussion players in the balcony box seats was a master stroke). To hear it done so superbly live, like this, is almost to hear it for the very first time and realize once more what a freakin’ genius that Lenny was. The ecstatic surge of “Tonight,” especially in its complex four-part reprise, the way “Maria” repetitively builds into a stately caravan of melodic exoticism, the plangent poignancy of “One Heart, One Hand,” the devastating dramatic blitz that is “A Boy Like That,” and, above all, the still startlingly sexy, elemental rhythmic jump of “Dance at the Gym” (“Mambo!”) followed one another fast and furiously and, if this show’s often flat dialogue may not possess the brilliant poetry of Shakespeare’s original, its music certainly attains this highest level of art.
Dance at the Gym (Joan Marcus)
Fast and furious certainly describes Laurents’ production, which moved seamlessly, and, to use a word I usually am loath to employ in theatre reviews, cinematically. Apart from a breathlessly effective set change for the Rumble scene, with an overhead bridge rising over the stage and a chain link face isolating the action, James Youmans’ set design may be a bit too bare-bones for a major Broadway revival, like Laurents’ GYPSY, but it’s terrifically serviceable, with nary a dead spot. As in GYPSY, Laurents has brought his writer’s deep psychological understanding of character to bear on the action, with superlative results.
Matt Cavenaugh in URBAN COWBOY
Slap my face for even doubting Cavenaugh. Somehow, this native Arkansan has morphed himself into a gesturally loose New York boy as authentic as any Dead End Kid without a hint of caricature, making Tony a genuinely nice guy, what used to be called “decent.” His slightly nasal Irish tenor, with a lovely falsetto, is a sound – which once joyously rang out through all of showbiz – heard all too rarely these days. As Ryan Silverman, who played the part in the recent Olivier Award-nominated London revival, recently observed, Tony is a hellishly difficult role, encompassing choirboy vocals and innocence added to convincing tough guy attitude, often within the same scene. Cavenaugh nailed every quality necessary to the role, and the moment during “Something’s Coming” (also hellishly difficult), in which he hit a high note, and ecstatically threw both arms up in the air in total surrender to the thrilling unknown he sings about, was, frankly, ravishing.
After the relative blandness of untold numbers of Tonys and Marias, it was a joy to discover the real chemistry existing between him and Argentinian newcomer Josefina Scaglione, one of those Disney-princess perfect ingenues, possessing dewy beauty and angelic pipes, but with an additional authentic Latina flavor, plus a startling strength and fire. This was blessedly not your grandma’s Maria, but an urban girl just as dangerously bursting with hormones as any gang boy and impetuously bent on getting her way. That rarest of stage qualities, which can never be bought or merely assumed – innocence – was what she and Cavenaugh had in spades, making their every encounter and ultimate end heartbreaking.
Karen Olivo, “America” (Joan Marcus)
Melting romance is, of course, a major element of WEST SIDE STORY, but just as important here is sizzle, the perfect segueway to bring up Karen Olivo as Anita. Chita Rivera onstage and Rita Moreno on film became legendary through this role, but, really, could either of them have been better than Olivo, who, to me, was an instant star from her dazzling first onstage moments in IN THE HEIGHTS? Her Anita is a richly varied portrait, now tsk-tsk’ingly maternal (in a smock, stitching Maria’s virginal prom dress), now deliciously sexy (instantaneously shaking down a mane of crimped hair), twitching her lethal body at her beloved, Maria’s brother Bernardo (a fine, fiery George Akram). Laurents’ decision to up the X-factor in the rape sequence was a wise one and, to it, Olivo brings a fury worthy of Anna Magnani. And when she frenetically struts her stuff in the sublimely entertaining “America” number, well, you just have to pity the fools who must follow such a showstopper. (Luckily, it’s the Jets with “Cool,” which comes damn close, but no cigar.)
Karen Olivo, IN THE HEIGHTS
Now to other, lesser Laurents decisions. The Spanish passages – mistakenly without subtitles – are undeniably effective much of the time, adding a richer texture, especially when the Sharks sing “Tonight” in their native language. But to stage all of “I Feel Pretty” (“Siento Hermosa,” in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s translation, which doesn’t scan so good) and the essential “A Boy Like That” only weakens things, causing bewilderment more than anything else, even to one very familiar with the show. One can’t help feeling that this will produce the opposite effect of what was intended and, instead of reaching a wider, Latino audience, general accessibility will be limited, perforce,and besides, there are a helluva lot of Latinos who don’t speak Spanish that well, or even at all, these days.
“Somewhere” (Photo by Ari Minz)
Also questionable was the use of that child to sing “Somewhere,” during the dream ballet. It wasn’t so much the use of a child that bothered me, who did sing very sweetly, just that child (Nicholas Barasch)- a perfect WASP-y little cherub, so very white and Central Casting and so evocative of gauzily bad cornball Hollywood cheese effects of the ’50s-’60s. This sequence itself is borderline-tricky enough to pull off, and if the kid had been Black or Asian (missing colors in this show’s casting), maybe I wouldn’t have objected so much, in this attempt to portray a gorgeous idealized racial tapestry.
Cody Green and The Jets (Joan Marcus)
The other dancing was across-the-board divine, and, although late in this review, now is the time to naturally acknowledge Jerome Robbins’ heritage with this show, every bit as essential as Bernstein’s. Like the music, the choreography here is so acutely sharp and impassioned that you experience it anew. The Rumble sequence, even in its balletic terms, was the best stage fight I have ever seen, with a real, visceral terror in those manically twisting bodies and flashing blades. All of the Jets and Sharks were splendidly performed – and not at all too non-threateningly scrubbed as some critics have mentioned – with Cody Green (from TV’s STEP IT UP AND DANCE) and Curtis Holbrook (XANADU, SAVED), my current favorite working “gypsy,” stand-outs. In the audience, loving every minute,were Anna Wintour and Harvey Weinstein, paying another visit to this show he’s co-produced.
George Akram, Cody Green (Joan Marcus)