REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
When West Side Story burst upon the Broadway scene in 1957, audiences and critics were stunned by the frank violence of the show. In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson called the material, a parable of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet involving two Manhattan gangs duking it out for supremacy in a small piece of asphalt, “horrifying.” There were other innovations in the groundbreaking musical: Leonard Bernstein’s technically difficult Afro-Cuban flavored score (one of the first without an overture), which tested the musical abilities of the musicians as well as the singers, Jerome Robbins’ super-athletic choreography, and the tragedies of having two main characters killed on stage before the Act I curtain came down.
Three revivals followed, in 1960, 1964, and 1980, but it wasn’t until 2009 when original director Arthur Laurents returned at the age of 91 to retool WSS to make it more relevant to 21st century audiences. Laurents’ changes hardened the characters so they would not be like pretty boys who could dance as well as wield a switchblade. In the 2009 revival, everyone in the cast is capable of murder, even its star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, as well as the embittered detective Schrank and his henchman, Officer Krupke. Theater League’s national touring company is currently performing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza’s Fred Kavli Theater, and for theater fans, the results are as hard-hitting as ever, although there is something muted about the performance.
It could be because this is the second year of the tour and the members of the ensemble are almost working mechanically. Many of the scenes seem rushed, with dialog spitted out at high decibels without any sense of pacing. For some, like me, where every viewing of this amazing show is a transforming experience, Theater League’s production falls somewhat short of memorable.
Part of the reason is Laurents’ most controversial change in the show: adding Spanish to the dialog and songs sung by the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang battling the Caucasian Jets for their sparse Manhattan turf. Indeed, the addition of Spanish helps establish a more realistic divide between the two gangs, and it seems more natural for the Sharks to speak to one another in their native language, but in some cases, precious plot exposition is lost, especially during dialog, such as the scene where Maria argues with her brother Bernardo about dating Tony, a former member of the Jets. When it works, it works well, such as in “I Feel Pretty” (subtitled in the program as “Me Siento Hermosa”), in which a euphoric Maria shares her feelings with her friends about her impending marriage, or when spurned boyfriend Chino comes to inform her that her brother has been killed in a street fight by Tony, and most effectively, when geeky social worker Glad Hand tries to communicate rules of the gym dance in what little Spanish he knows.
There were other, more subtle changes Laurents introduced that hardened the authenticity of the hatred the gangs felt for one another, including occasional profane epithets, Bernardo giving the Jets an obscene gesture, and the increased viciousness of the attack on Anita in Doc’s drugstore. In one encounter, Officer Krupke actually strikes a member of the Jets and pulls a gun on him, while Schrank seems just as vitriolic toward the Sharks as the Jets are.
Theater League does all of these things well in a remarkably effective production. In the Laurents revival each gang is now linked to a color: the Jets to orange (signified by headbands, bandannas and vests) and the Sharks to purple (Bernardo wears a full-length purple suit to the dance; after his death, Anita puts on a purple dress, linking her to him). In scenes with Bernardo and the Jets, the stage is bathed in purple and blue lighting, so there is a significant and subtle linking of colors to the gangs’ activities.
Another major change is the ending; whereas, in the original and the 1961 film, the two gangs come together to assist each other in transporting Tony’s body, pallbearer-style, off stage, in the revival, Laurents recognized that no police would allow such a thing to happen at a crime scene, so instead, one of the Sharks picks up Maria’s scarf and places it on her head as she mourns over Tony’s body.
As for the performances, MaryJoanna Grisso is absolutely convincing as Maria. When Grisso got the part nearly two years ago, she immediately consulted with a Spanish tutor, since she could not speak a word of Spanish. Her accent and pronunciation are flawless and she perfectly embodies the role of a naive, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant who has enthusiastically embraced her new home. Grisso, who is classically trained, has a beautiful high soprano that works best in the operatic “I Feel Pretty,” whose melody somehow sounds more authentically Spanish when sung with Spanish words.
As Anita, Michelle Alves shows that her character has been in America longer than Maria and has become cynical about the move. She helps Maria by reminding her to speak English, an effective added touch to the script. Alves shows verve and vitality in her portrayal and is especially good in her bitter scene after learning of Bernardo’s death.
Jarrad Biron Green deftly balances his acting in playing Tony, a former gang member as well as Maria’s love interest. He plays Tony with a rougher edge; he is not quite as “soft” as Richard Beymer in the 1961 film version, and you can actually believe that he was once one of the leaders of the gang.
Like Smith, Benjiman Dallas Redding joined the company last fall (Grisso and Alves are both in their second year in the tour) and plays a muscular, if not particularly athletic Riff. A surprise is the increased visibility of Anybodys, the tomboy who wants to be a Jet. In addition to gaining seemingly more stage time, Anybodys, beautifully played by Rosalie Graziano, gets to sing the first part of the “Somewhere” ballet sequence as a solo, with the cast joining her for the conclusion of the song. Matt Webster, who in real life is engaged to Grisso, provides the main comic relief as Glad Hand. Mark Fishback is somewhat disappointing as Doc, the one character who actually shows some realistic sympathy and sense of right and wrong. Ostensibly a Jewish character, Fishback only occasionally shows elements of a fatherly nature towards Tony, which defuses their relationship. Skip Pipo, as Schrank, and F. Tyler Burnet, as Krupke, play their parts chillingly well.
The set design is remarkably effective, especially in the rumble at the end of Act I, where the fight is played from behind a tall chain-link fence, with an ominous, looming freeway overpass as background. J. Michael Duff expertly directed the orchestra, while Jerome Robbins and Peter Gennaro’s original choreography was exactingly reproduced by Joey McKneely.
West Side Story plays through Sunday at the Fred Kavli Theater. For dates and show times, see the VC On Stage Calendar.