Excuse the old fogeyness, but they just don't make musicals like West Side Story anymore. So if you want a rare chance to enjoy a live performance of this iconic Broadway classic, you'd better quickly grab the few remaining tickets to the national touring company's five-day Seattle run that opened last night at the Paramount.
In truth, they rarely ever made musicals like West Side Story, a show conceived a half-century ago by acclaimed choreographer/director Jerome Robbins along with fellow Broadway legends Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. You've seen the movie, you've heard the songs, you're well-familiar with the Romeo and Juliet-inspired 1950s New York street-gang setting. A musical that tells its story as much through dance as it does through song or dialogue, this is Robbins's masterpiece. Arguably Bernstein's too. The material deserves every plaudit it has ever received. Let's just leave it at that.
So what about this production, the recently recast touring company of the hit Broadway revival Laurents directed in 2009? Is it worth the price of admission? With one caveat, yes: Just don't expect to see ensemble performances quite as crisp and well-rounded as the familiar film version.
If there's a flaw in West Side Story, it's that nearly every role requires a triple-threat performer—one who can equally sing, dance, and act—and is incredibly challenging to cast. The film version skirts this problem, casting Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the lead roles of Maria and Tony, only to dub in more competent voices for the songs. And Robbins was such a perfectionist with the dance numbers, reshooting them dozens of times, that frustrated producers ultimately fired him from the film. Through that, and the magic of editing, every note was perfect, and every dance step was perfectly synchronized.
That sort of precision simply isn't possible on stage, and the young cast of unknowns doesn't always live up to either Hollywood or Broadway standards in all aspects of their performances. But that's a criticism that's easily set aside in the presence of Robbins's original choreography (faithfully reproduced for this revival) and Bernstein's familiar yet surprisingly complex score. I've heard these songs hundreds of times, but still found myself wiping a few tears away after being swept up by the sheer emotional force of the music.
It's not the best-acted show you'll ever see, but the dancing is often spectacular and the ensemble musical numbers never disappoint.
And there's little to criticize about the leads. Maria is played coquettishly by Evy Ortiz, whose slight frame and youngish looks belie a powerful soprano voice, while Ross Lekites, whose almost too-gentle portrayal of Tony makes him an unlikely gang leader, demonstrates how he snagged the role when he opens up his tenor full throttle during a stirring rendition of "Maria." And while Michelle Aravena is no Rita Moreno, she makes the part of Anita her own with an energetically sexy performance that steals the scene when she's supposed to, and backs off when she's not.
In fact, the show is sexier and bawdier than you might expect. There's plenty of ass-grabbing during the high school dance scene (which my 14-year-old daughter informed me was anthropologically accurate), and the late Laurent's updated stage direction (directed by David Saint for the tour) is chock full of lewd hand gestures and hip thrusts. I'm not personally offended by, say, a character graphically miming the act of masturbation during "Officer Krupky," it's just something to be aware of, if, like me, you're planning on bringing your child.
There's also quite a bit of Spanish in Laurent's revised book—maybe 10 percent of the lyrics and dialogue—a change that adds an air of authenticity without detracting from the story. Indeed, "I Feel Pretty," which Sondheim has often bemoaned for its simplistic lyrics, actually works better in Spanish.
Yeah, sure, the dialogue sounds a bit dated at times, though more in a charming, period piece sorta way, and the whirlwind two-day romance between Tony and Maria is hardly believable... but then, this is a musical, a universe in which street thugs suddenly break out into song and/or the occasional fit of balletic modern dance. So suspension of disbelief is kind of a prerequisite. And no, there's no star-studded cast. But then, West Side Story—an artistic masterpiece from the glory days before the tragic convergence of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh, and wireless microphones conspired to destroy musical theater—was never the sort of show that needed stars.
Just remember: It's not the movie. And with that single caveat properly in place, it's easily a must-see for West Side Story fans itching for the emotional experience that only live theater can bring.