Whispering West Side

west-side-storyThe current revival of West Side Story toys with doing something new while clinging to signatures of the original, resulting in what feels like a production of high school-level confidence with good intentions but low returns, failing to find the passion in one of Broadway’s most memorable scores. First and foremost, the cast either needed to speak up or the show’s sound designer, Dan Moses Schreier, needs to re-think his design. Even from the front of the orchestra, much of the singing and dialogue was difficult to hear, which was compounded by performances that were hard to connect with. Weighing in at the ripe old age of 90, it seems director Arthur Laurents was not up to the task of instilling the necessary fire in this cast of youngsters, many of whom have limited experience in the New York theater. Matt Cavenaugh (Tony) is too old for this cast and has a voice too weak for these songs. His posture is stiff and he skips the emotional journey in going from point A to point B, transitioning from goofy grin to the sad face of tragedy with no nuances to flavor the change. Josefina Scaglione (Maria) creates a lithe and beautiful presence but is weighted down from a lack of connection to Cavenaugh’s Tony. Karen Olivo (Anita) confuses flipping her hair and making faces of disapproval for acting, while Cody Green (Riff) and George Akram (Bernardo) both give flat-line performances that inspire as little sympathy in their character’s struggles as they do in their deaths. Curtis Holbrook (Action) offers one of the few performances bringing any sort of life into this production and is one of the only gang members on stage who is believable as both a street tough and accomplished dancer (a combination that is as contradictory as it sounds, and made even more difficult by the ever-growing distance between street violence and ballet that has continued in the past half a century). Incorporating Spanish dialogue and lyrics was an inspired notion but doesn’t come across, largely due to a failure to commit. The portions in Spanish were often spoken in a timid, apologetic manner, and many of the Sharks handled it as if it were a language foreign to them. There seemed to be a lack of confidence in the cast causing the new language to fail in its integration. Similar to this holding back with language were the racial epitaphs that came off the Jets’ tongues with a modern-day consciousness to society’s sensitivities, rendering the words pointless and ineffective. Overall the cast seemed more comfortable with the old chorography than anything new, whispering where they should have made their firmest pronouncements. The original Robbins choreography was technically well executed but suffers from the fact that Robbins himself wasn’t there to teach it to the dancers. This raises the question of whether a reproduction of an artist’s work can really be successfully imparted by a secondary source. Isn’t what made Robbins’s choreography unique something that was inherently a part of him and who he was? If he’s not present to instruct the dancers to get it exactly the way he wants it, then isn’t something lost? More so, legal reasons aside, why are we repeating the directions and choreography of one who is no longer with us? This seems only to lead to the same old production after production with a law of diminishing returns that seems to inevitably go downhill from the original. If there can only be one interpretation of a musical such as West Side Story, then it truly is a creatively dead entity. Is Jerome Robbins really benefiting from this? How can this generation benefit from spending its time trying to re-stage the past instead of creating the works of the future? If insanity could be defined doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then it seems to me that a piece that can’t be re-interpreted is best left alone. - C. Jefferson Thom cj_thomMr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.