Theater Review: Broadway's 'West Side Story' at the Palace Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 2009

NEW YORK -- At last, Josefina Scaglione gets the Tony she deserves. And we're not talking about a certain coveted statuette. No, it's Matt Cavenaugh's portrayal of Tony, the reformed hoodlum who sweeps a Puerto Rican girl off her feet, that has risen to the occasion in the newly, slightly improved revival of "West Side Story."

Cavenaugh could not quite match Scaglione's magnetic Maria during the show's Washington tryout two months ago. But in the run-up to Thursday night's Broadway opening at the Palace Theatre, he added measures of both mellifluousness and muscle to his performance. Now, the musical's tragic, Shakespearean dimension is able to bleed onto the stage with more vehemence.

That is a needed upgrade for a revival -- directed by its librettist, 91-year-old Arthur Laurents -- that felt particularly testosterone-deprived. But even with its invigorated Tony, the production remains erratic. It has not adequately addressed an imbalance in the acting ranks that muffles one of the turbulent centers of the show: the trigger-happy hatred between the gangs, the white-ethnic Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks.

To put it plainly, the Jets, those angry, sneering products of America's social breakdown, have been miscast. They come across in this version as if they were the kinds of classroom scamps who were candidates for detention rather than three-to-five in the state pen. Sure, it's a challenge, embodying a thug while singing Leonard Bernstein's satiny music and leaping gazelle-like to Jerome Robbins's balletic choreography. And yet, they don't for a minute allow us to believe that they could sow violence at the slightest provocation.

That deficiency, as a result, saps all the jarring energy out of the jazzy first-act "Cool" and more critically, Act 2's "Gee, Officer Krupke," the song that defines their poisonous, self-pitying worldview. T he number has been re-choreographed by the highly capable Joey McKneely since the run at Washington's National Theatre.

It's an improvement, but only a marginal one, because the song's lyrics, by the great Stephen Sondheim, describe a group of miscreants with more tortured pathologies than these softies of the mean streets ever manage to convey.

What you have, then, is a "West Side Story" that fulfills many of the basic requirements -- it's even more exhilaratingly danced and sung than in Washington -- without the urban insouciance that first stamped the musical as one-of-a-kind. It is left to the captivating Karen Olivo, in the surefire role of Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, to vent all the restlessness and fire of these young people, fighting the tides of 1950s privation and intolerance.

Olivo's leggy captaincy of "America," one of Broadway's all-time sparkling musical numbers, makes you forget some of the production's unevenness. (The actresses playing the other Shark girls are especially good.) Smartly, too, the use of Spanish -- which Laurents made a hallmark of this revival -- has been scaled back a bit, so that Maria now sings the crucial "I Have a Love" late in Act 2 in English. (Which even makes some narrative sense, after disillusioned Anita reverts to Spanish for her vengeful aria, "A Boy Like That.")

The Argentine Scaglione, who played a supporting role in "Hairspray" in Buenos Aires, emerged as the find of the Washington tryout, and s he cements that perception here. Her gorgeously sung Maria is an ideal blend: girlish in her passion, womanly in her devotion. Growing up over "West Side Story's" meager time span is not easily accomplished, and yet this is the touching effect Scaglione achieves.

That progression has been smoothed by Cavenaugh's more assured Tony, an approach evident both in the assertiveness he brings to the dialogue scenes, and the gentler vocal modulations he's added to "Something's Coming" and "Maria." The evening is never better than when their voices converge in a bliss-inducing rendition of "Tonight." The two of them ensure it's not just any night -- even if it's not quite the night it might have been.

West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Laurents. Jerome Robbins's choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely. Sets, James Youmans; lighting, Howell Binkley; costumes, David C. Woolard; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; music director, Patrick Vaccariello. With Cody Green, George Akram, Curtis Holbrook, Michael Mastro, Lindsay Dunn, Tro Shaw, Kyle Coffman, Ryan Steele, Joey Haro, Danielle Polanco, Greg Vinkler, Lee Sellars. About 2 hours 45 minutes. At Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York. Visit or call 212-307-4100.

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