Voices Of the Barrio
This 'West Side Story' Is Fluent In the Language of the Heart

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

It's love at first sight for us as well as for Tony in the new Broadway-bound revival of "West Side Story." The object of our shared enchantment is a young actress from Argentina by the name of Josefina Scaglione, whose portrayal of ill-starred Maria embodies all the tender feeling and earthier passion this Juliet of the barrio is meant to engender.

Such is the allure of the performance that even when Scaglione is singing in Spanish -- which she does repeatedly in this novel, bilingual incarnation, directed by its librettist, Arthur Laurents -- an English speaker discerns the radiant spectrum of emotion in a young girl caught between ethnic hatred and desire. No matter how you conjugate them, it seems, the giddy verbs of "I Feel Pretty" (or rather "Siento Hermosa") ring out with verve.

The inspired bit of casting is one of the more persuasive arguments in favor of this melodically transcendent musical, blessed with an incandescent score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. In some other crucial categories, this as-yet-uneven production, which opened Wednesday night at the National Theatre, adheres to the standards for a beloved landmark. Joey McKneely's re-creation of Jerome Robbins's original choreography, for instance, is exhilarating, particularly in the hormone-fueled sizzle of "Dance at the Gym" and the satiric kick of "America," which here showcases the splendidly self-possessed Anita of Karen Olivo.

Vocally, too, this "West Side" benefits from the operatic skill of Scaglione and the dreamy larynx of her Tony, Matt Cavenaugh, whose stirring collaboration on the balcony-scene number gives "Tonight" a powerhouse completeness.

Yet it must also be noted that in this tryout run, the interludes of electricity tend to surge and recede more often than is optimal. For while the show chronicles the violent confrontations between two gangs of New York boys, the Irish-, Italian- and Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, it's the girls on this evening who simmer and explode to more vibrant effect.

The dramatic imbalance seems most acute when the Jets are expected to throw their weight around. Here, their scenes and songs -- especially "Gee, Officer Krupke," the post-rumble number that can get audiences out of their seats at a high school in Fargo -- make a disappointingly muted impact. True, switchblade-toting street toughs trilling the lilting airs of Bernstein requires disbelief-suspension on the best of days. This rather non-threatening gaggle of young actors, though, seems to have been cast much more for hip action than menacing heft. As a young woman who had been a student of mine quipped at intermission: "I think I could take them."

Cody Green's Riff is emblematic of the deficiency. He's a superb dancer, athletic and nimble. But his face is fixed in a scowl, and Riff's magnetic appeal as leader of the Jets -- in musicals, even bigoted thugs can have charm -- fails to register. Conversely, Cavenaugh's Tony, though beautifully sung, feels improbably clean-cut, even for ultimate nice-guy Tony, who has given up life as a gang member to be gofer in Doc's drugstore. (Cavenaugh looks more like a candidate for the Naval Academy than a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.)

The linchpin conceit of Laurents's new production -- deftly enhanced by James Youmans's set design of bleak urban streetscapes -- is a realistic division of language between native speakers and immigrants. Reflecting the embrace in film and TV of socially conscious drama, the show at its birth in 1957 signaled an effort to hold up a mirror to the ills of urban life on the musical stage.

What Laurents now beefs up in his own script is a truer sense of the cultural misunderstandings at the heart of "West Side Story" as expressed in the characters' disparate languages. The show has always given the Jets an invented vernacular, in expressions like "Cracko-jacko!" Now, characters such as Shark leader Bernardo, played by Venezuelan-born George Akram, converse in everyday Spanish. Not only is some of the banter in a number like "America" conducted in that tongue, but whole songs have also been translated into Spanish, courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the current Tony-winning Broadway hit "In the Heights."

To "West Side Story's" generations of fans -- and the smaller legions who know the score by heart -- the alterations will probably not affect comprehension. (A decision was made during the show's preview weeks to abandon the use of English surtitles for scenes in Spanish.) Singing "I Feel Pretty" in Spanish restores vitality to a chestnut and won't seriously impede understanding, since its meaning is pretty much summed up in its title.

Still, a serious miscalculation has been made in the shorter second act and the culminating drama of Anita's confrontation with Maria, after Anita discovers Maria has just slept with Bernardo's killer. Anita's accusatory "A Boy Like That" and Maria's defiant response, "I Have a Love," are rendered entirely in Spanish. Unlike "I Feel Pretty," the numbers form a protracted musical conversation, critical to the plot. "Tengo un amor/Un amor sin igual" ("I have a love, a love without equal"), Maria sings, imploring Anita to see her predicament from her perspective, and thus help her to run away with Tony.

Non-Spanish speakers and those new to the musical will be frustratingly at sea, and may have to find satisfaction in other aspects of the production.

(David C. Woolard's costumes, alas, are not one of them: Each Jet wears a variation on the color tangerine; the Sharks dress in shades of purple. It looks at times as if the competition between them were not for turf but space in a Gap ad.)

It's in the nature of the run-up to Broadway to catalogue what works in a new production and what may not. Thanks to the young bodies in thrilling motion, and the discovery Laurents has made in his exciting choice for Maria, this "West Side Story" has some potent moves in its playbook, even if everyone is not yet on the same page.

West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Laurents. Jerome Robbins's choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely. Lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music director, Patrick Vaccariello. With Tro Shaw, Curtis Holbrook, Kyle Coffman, Ryan Steele, Joshua Buscher, Greg Vinkler, Michael Mastro, Lee Sellars and Steve Bassett. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 17 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit http://telecharge.com or call 800-447-7400.

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