West Side Story

Now playing at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

At a weekday evening performance of West Side Story, Sean and I had the misfortune to be seated directly in front of a group of high school students, a small but significant number of whom simply could not deal with the conceit of dancing gang members. They snickered and whispered and generally lived down to every stereotype of the age. We wanted to smack them. Choreographer Jerome Robbins’s street ballet obviously isn’t realistic, but strict adherence to realism is a poor metric for quality in art, and in a musical, it’s absurd.

The real irony, though, is that Robbins’s landmark choreography, restored in this new revival, is the best thing about the production. The instrumentalists, while quite talented, aren’t completely in sync performing composer Leonard Bernstein’s complex rhythms, and the singers, with a few notable exceptions, are pedestrian and poorly served by bad miking. But the dancing—athletic leaps and long-lined extensions and crisp, coordinated movements playing off Bernstein’s iconic music! That I loved, and no stupid giggly kids could spoil it for me. (Kids these days! Get off my lawn!)

West Side Story, of course, transposes the familiar Romeo and Juliet tale of star-crossed love to 1950s New York, with rival street gangs—American-born teenagers versus Puerto Rican immigrants—substituting for the Montagues and Capulets. If anything, Arthur Laurents’s book simplifies Shakespeare further, making West Side a fable of idealism in the face of hopelessness and racial disharmony. Stephen Sondheim’s sharp, biting lyrics add some edge, particularly in “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but to modern eyes, I think, West Side is rather dreamlike, a heartfelt vision of a gentle flame struggling to burn brighter amid crushing darkness.

Bernstein’s music is what elevates West Side to the realm of classics. The striking syncopation, the surprising variety in orchestral texture, the lilting melodies over sophisticated harmonic progressions—he neither dumbs down his “classical” compositional technique nor introduces idioms that don’t work on the theatrical stage. The result is glorious, one unforgettable song after another. Even the purely instrumental numbers are riveting: “Dance at the Gym” is worthy of the symphony hall—and indeed it is frequently played there, in slightly different form, as part of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Sadly, many of the singers in this revival fail to live up to the music’s greatness. The exceptions are Karen Olivo, who plays Anita, and Josefina Scaglione, who plays Maria. Dramatically speaking, Anita is the best-written character in the musical—often the standout—and Olivo takes full advantage of her material, making up for the weakness of her lower register with gorgeous phrasing and an electric stage presence. Scaglione has the pure bell tones required of sweet young Maria, deftly handling her soaring melodies and shifting gracefully from the innocence of “One Hand, One Heart” to the spunkiness of “I Feel Pretty” to the passionate conviction of “I Have a Love.”

More bad luck, though: We saw Scaglione with an understudy playing Tony, and he was an unworthy partner. I don’t want to be cruel—maybe he was nervous or unprepared—but his weak, poppy voice was no match for the role. He never met an extended note he wouldn’t hit with the same unmusical sforzando, and he rushed like a fiend through “Something’s Coming.” He and Scaglione had no blend—the voices strained against each other when they sang in unison—and as actors, they had no chemistry, not surprising, perhaps, as the understudy couldn’t adequately convey any emotion besides dopey amiability.

I wish we’d seen Matt Cavenaugh, the usual Tony, because aside from our blundering understudy, the production was well staged. I might not have been overly impressed with the singing, but really, group numbers such as “Cool” and “Krupke” don’t require golden voices so much as personality, precise diction, and spot-on rhythm, and that the ensemble could deliver in spades.

Laurents, directing this revival, also experimented with adding more Spanish to the musical, a well-meaning but ultimately unsuccessful endeavor. Without supertitles, the Spanish-speaking actors have to jump back to English for key lines, which feels awkward, only calling attention to fact that Chino, for example, would surely continue in Spanish when informing Maria of her brother’s death.

The issue is even worse in songs. I strongly object to translating lyrics (including other languages into English) on general principle, and the clumsiness of the West Side project does nothing to change my mind. Translating lyrics isn’t just a matter of translating. Songs are composed with certain phonetics and rhythms and syntax in mind; just because the new translated lyrics have the same meaning as the original does nothing to guarantee that they will “fit” the music. And when you have lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, of all people—one of the greatest lyricists of the twentieth century—why mess with that? How does “Por favor, Anita, por favor” improve on “But my heart, Anita, but my heart,” with the melody leaning into heart (as opposed to -vor) and eliding elegantly into the next phrase? Just … no. It’s a nice idea in theory, but it doesn’t work.

The silliness of the language issue made me doubly happy that with the choreography, at least, Laurents decided to be true to the original. I’m sure there are some (maybe the obnoxious kids behind me) who think West Side Story should be grittier, with rougher, more contemporary dancing, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s still a musical—and a simple, fable-like musical at that. It’s never going to be “realistic,” so why try to force it to be something it’s not?

What’s more, Robbins’s incredible choreography doesn’t need to be modernized. It still conveys energy and passion and anger and innocence and despair and love. The dance at the gym—with the competitive gangs, the farce of the circle dance, the fleeting bubble of bliss of Tony and Maria’s first meeting—is a masterpiece of ensemble work, using the whole stage, shifting our attention from one spot to the other, and always with such exuberant, dynamic steps. That moment with Tony and Maria—when Bernstein draws the music down and Robbins creates a beautifully unadorned, almost childlike dance with outstretched arms—is, in fact, one of my favorites. It’s so delicate, so lovely and modest, and so fragile, soon to be swallowed up again by the fierce, angry mambo. It’s perfect as it is. Robbins knew exactly what he was doing.