West Side Story opened last night to a standing ovation. A favorite musical for lots of people, this is the first national tour of the show and the 2009 revival version (a little darker and different than the original 1957 premiere).
Unlike other musicals, West Side Story grows younger!
That’s the tagline for the production—a gimmicky contradiction, but I see their point. It's dated at times, but after 50 years West Side Story is still pretty damn clever and fresh, which seems a particular feat as it is a pop culture reference so engrained in our minds. Most people probably grew up with the movie: the ‘50s take on Romeo and Juliet, of racial tension and gang violence. I know I watched the film three times just during grade school. And yet we keeping coming back!
In the end it’s the music (thanks Steven Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein), not the storyline, that’s carried the piece all these years. It’s the excitable horns, with their melting pot of jazz, opera, and symphony, that keep you caring. The Jets' “Gee, Office Krupke” is still hilarious, or at least amusing; they make it cruder for the stage—with the gang punting invisible babies and pulling open their waistbands to examine their “social disease.” Reading that now, it doesn’t sound like it would be funny. But it is! Lookit, the film version:
Seeing the production live adds tension and conflict, exemplified by the scene just before Tony (Ross Lekites) is shot: you have Tony, the Jets, Anita, and Maria all onstage, singing different songs simultaneously, all holding their own. The casting is mostly excellent; Maria (Evy Ortiz) maybe has too much of a Snow White-like vibrato in her voice, but has the right innocent charm. Riff (i.e. Mercutio—arguably everyone's fave—played by Drew Foster) is nice n sassy.
The lighting and sets are particularly great—they’re like the angles and edgy lines of an Expressionist film paired with a Technicolor vibrancy similar to the movie. (Best set pieces include the giant gate that drops down and screens the stage during the fight scene, and the gymnasium with its symmetrical streamers.) It's noteworthy that the film was a feat in itself, especially in cinematography, with the crew using cool new panoramic lenses and digging holes in the ground to capture lower-angle shots.
As in the movie, the fight scenes are always so ridiculously satisfying, I think because it requires so much coordination and cooperation to rumble like that—though this is also part of what feels dated: the fighting is a little too polite and rigid. (I imagine them as if it was the Fonz, a slightly more coordinated Fonz, who actually fought in Happy Days.) There’ve been complaints about the tight hold the Jerome Robbins estate has on the choreography of the production. In spite of this stalemate, it’s still quite alive. Watch this mildly cheeky montage put together by Broadway Across America, and judge for yourself: