Tonight I had a real thrill, seeing WEST SIDE STORY on stage at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Although I've seen the film countless times and enjoyed a taste of the dances via a touring production of JEROME ROBBINS' BROADWAY in the '80s, the touring production of the recent Broadway revival was my first time to see WEST SIDE STORY as a theatrical production. And I'm very happy to say it was a fantastic show.
The story is so well known I won't go into it here. Simply put, this was a fresh, energetic interpretation, which, rather like the great SOUTH PACIFIC revival I saw last year, managed to put a new shine on an old favorite. The show was gripping, not solely because of the beautiful music and exciting dances, but because of the raw emotions and especially the romantic heat. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this Tony and Maria are not only sweetly in love, they are hot!) The choice to have the Puerto Rican characters sing partially in Spanish worked fine for me and made dramatic sense.
Most thrilling of all was seeing Jerome Robbins' choreography for "Dance at the Gym" and "Cool" performed live on stage. They were incredible "wow" moments which were my favorite scenes, along with the performances of "Tonight" and "Quintet."
Tony and Maria are played by Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt. Vocally, they are adequate, although they're not my favorite singers to ever peform the roles; they're on pitch but it's more a matter of how I respond to their voices. Harris, in particular, slides into a different "voice" depending on where he's at on the scale. Ewoldt seemed to warm up as the show went on and admirably handled the challenging "I Have a Love" in Act II.
My hesitations on the vocals aside, Harris and Ewoldt's acting was such that all their musical numbers still worked beautifully for me, and the romantic, passion-filled performance of "Tonight" caused me to tear up. It's always been one of my favorite songs of all musical theater, and they completely caught the moment, portraying dazzled young lovers who can't wait to be together forever.
I was also particularly struck by the performance of "One Hand, One Heart." With absolutely no dialogue other than the lyrics, Ewoldt conveys ominous foreshadowing towards the end of the song, and her sad removal of the bridal veil is brought full circle when the black mourning shawl is placed over her head in the play's final moments.
Alicia Charles was an outstanding Anita, handling the role's vocal, dance, and acting demands with ease, dancing up a storm in "America" and powerfully carrying off the dramatic singing of "A Boy Like That" in Act II. The large cast also included Joseph Simeone as Riff and German Santiago as Bernardo.
Being very familiar with the musical's history, I was particularly interested in being able to see the show with the songs as they were originally placed, as some songs were notably moved in the Oscar-winning movie.
I have to say that the changes made by the filmmakers were completely correct; the placement of "Gee, Officer Krupke" after "The Rumble" completely dissipates the tension and doesn't make dramatic sense. (The Jets' leader has just been killed and they're joking around?) Switching "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "Cool" makes so much sense it's almost surprising it wasn't done that way on Broadway. That said, I did like the thematic tie-in with the Jets working to keep "cool" when they're confronted by the police in the scene following that dance.
"I Feel Pretty" works fairly well on stage as the Act II opener, especially as Maria doesn't yet know the outcome of the rumble, but I think it works better earlier on in the film. It was also interesting seeing "America" performed by an all-female ensemble. Again, it works fine in the original, but the film takes the dance to the next level by using a mixed dance ensemble.
I greatly enjoyed the stage production on its own terms, but I also appreciated the opportunity it gave me to evaluate the film in light of the original. So often movies make poor choices in deviating from the original source material, but seeing the stage production reinforced for me the filmmakers' wisdom in translating the show to the screen.
The set design was outstanding. I particularly admired the freeway overpass in the rumble scene and the staging of the groups of characters for "Quintet."
I'm pleased to say that this production had none of the sound issues which sometimes made discerning muffled dialogue a challenge at MARY POPPINS and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Everything sounded crystal clear, just as it was for the touring production of SOUTH PACIFIC last October. I hope that will be the case at future productions at Segerstrom.
For another review, visit the Orange County Register, and here's a review from the show's run in Chicago a couple months ago.
Related posts: Tonight's Theater: The Phantom of the Opera; Tonight's Theater: My Fair Lady; Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 14, 2010); Tonight's Theater: South Pacific (October 22, 2010); Tonight's Theater: Beauty and the Beast; Tonight's Theater: Mary Poppins.