West Side Story in Boston: Classic Show in Universal Language

The balcony embrace between Tony and Maria in “West Side Story” spells out everything you need to know about this touching, yet tragic love story.  Much has been made about the use of both Spanish and English in this updated version of this classic musical, but true to the show’s Shakespearean roots, it’s much ado about nothing.  Theatre people, I know you love the drama, but take a deep breath, and let me ease your minds: little is lost in this bilingual production, and much is gained.  Authenticity and a deep understanding of the groundbreaking original are the guiding forces of this new “West Side Story” … the spirit of 1957 is sharpened by the stagecraft and passion of 2011.

Let me say this first and foremost … nothing can ever eclipse the work done by the original creative team.  The stunning score by Leonard Bernstein, the street smart yet lushly romantic lyrics of a young Stephen Sondheim, the brilliant direction and choreography of Jerome Robbins, and the sharp and insightful words of Arthur Laurents.  Gentleman, I can only say that you have left a masterpiece for the ages.

So let’s turn our attention to the show at hand.  What we have at the Colonial Theatre is one of the strongest “West Side Story” casts you will ever see.  Are they perfect … hardly.  Surprisingly, it’s some of the imperfections that add to the authenticity.  Tony is played by Kyle Harris, he’s got an impressive vocal range … he also has an oddly goofy expression on his face for much of the show.  Tony, a goof?  Impossible, you say?  Not really.  Tony blindly throws himself into a culture-busting relationship at a time when his entire world is terrified by changing times.  He’s an innocent, a romantic, and a goof.  He could also use a little stage direction (tour director David Saint was in the house on Wednesday night) … Harris pretty much just stands in one place when he sings to signature numbers, “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.”  Hey, Mr. Saint, this isn’t “West Side Story” in concert!  Let the man move!

Maria is played by Ali Ewoldt in an endearing and energetic performance.  This is a high strung, and determined Maria.  She can grab you with her vulnerability, and dazzle you with the power of her voice.  She’s terrific on “Tonight” and heartbreakingly beautiful on “One Hand, One Heart.”  She’s also a fine complement to Harris’ Tony.  If Tony is a bit of a goof, you could argue that Maria is more than a bit clueless.  It’s as a couple that the two of them become a unifying force.  They really do complete each other, making their ultimate fate that much more poignant.

That wasn’t a spoiler, was it?  You’ve all read Romeo and Juliet right?  Just checkin’ … I’m not sure if the Bard is still covered on the MCAS!

Anyway, in case you haven’t been paying attention, in this production the Sharks .. the Puerto Rican gang, and their girls, speak Spanish.  Not all the time, but enough to make a definite impression.  That means songs like “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are largely sung in Spanish.  Significant sections of dialog are in Spanish too.  Do you feel a bit left out at times?  A bit.  But isn’t that the point!  It’s that fear of differences that fuels the tragedy in “West Side Story.”  If this was the first production of the show it would be a problem, but I’m betting about 98% of the audience knows the show by heart.  If you don’t, listen to the soundtrack or original cast recording a few times before coming.  I enjoyed the word play and I don’t speak Spanish.  I felt I knew the Sharks better because they were speaking their own language.

That said, I want to give special props to German Santiago as Bernardo and Michelle Aravena as Anita.  Truth be told this is Anita’s show.  Aravena is just sensational.  Singing, dancing, heck just standing there, you can’t take your eyes off her.  She’s costumed mostly in purple, but it’s not the eye-catching color that draws you to her.  It’s her intensity and passion.  Maria may be the heart of the show, but Anita is the soul.  Aravena is the most interesting thing on the stage whenever she graces it.

One thing that has changed little from the original is the choreography of Jerome Robbins.  Smart move.  The dancing is as fresh today as it was in 1957.  And this cast can dance.  The dudes in the Jets are about as menacing as a litter of Golden Retriever puppies, but when they launch themselves into the air who cares!  Joseph Simeone does his best to make Riff a punk, but he’s just too damn cute in that vest of his.  The Jet girls on the other hand are smokin’!  Kristen Paulicelli, Kirstin Tucker, and Jessica Swesey absolutely rip it up in the dance numbers.  They are women among boys!

The only sequence in the show that I felt fell flat was the Act II staging of “Somewhere.”  It turned into a weak dream ballet that looked like it was staged by the cast of “Lost.”  The stage was bare, the actors wore bright white and beige … all that was missing was a Dharma Intiative logo!  Also, having tomboy, gang wannabe, Anybodys sing the main verse was a poor decision.  Alexandra Frohlinger has a lovely voice, but this is Tony and Maria’s plea for a better world.  I didn’t like it being taken away from them.

It is, in the end, a brave and winning production.  It takes courage and vision to tinker with a classic and in this case most of the decisions pay off.  If this is your first “West Side Story”, throw your arms around it, and feel those well earned tears roll down your cheeks.

This wasn’t even close to my first … and I still felt that way.

“West Side Story” plays at the Colonial Theatre through July 9, 2011.  Tickets are available at the box office or through broadwayacrossamerica.com

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