WEST SIDE STORY -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through February 3.
There is no doubt that "West Side Story" is a hit. The score, by Leonard Bernstein, doesn't just meet that musical comedy standard of being hummable; it is memorable. The choreography, by Jerome Robins, is excitingly integrated drama and dance. Stephen Sondheim's light lyrics are witty and his sappy ones are sweet. And the Arthur Laurents book is at least good enough to carry all these wonders smoothly along.
It's not as much of a thrill to recognize this now, as a drama critic watching a revival, as it was 23 years ago, as a National Theater usher making the discovery along with its first audience -- while the composer and the choreographer were still pacing in nervous doubt. New audiences are seeing what now calls itself "one of America's great musicals," and may be more inclined to pick at faults than to be astounded and grateful at the wealth of its virtues.
But there is little at which it's possible to pick. The story of instant, pure and, needless to say, star-crossed, love between a Puerto Rican girl and a "regular," i.e., first-generation, American boy demands a suspension of cynicism -- but then, "Romeo and Juliet" always has. One can imagine this Maria and Tony, had they found their magical "Somewhere" and had all those children, someday getting to the point where remarks about each other's "backgrounds" might appear in their quarrels. But why bother? The point about the relationship between prejudice and individual experience is made fairly well, especially in a scene where Maria's friend is effectively bullied back into destructive bigotry as she has tried to emerge from it.
And while the shock value that the musical once had for its mild acknowledgement of sex is long gone, some social points seem more startling now. The "Gee, Officer Krupke" song, in which street kids mockingly work the sympathies of psychiatric and social workers, has a fresh air of neo-conservatism. The merciless characterization of Puerto Rico in "America" -- even sung by Puerto Rican characters -- seems daring. Only the small-role of a scruffy and scorned tomboy, originally funny for its brutal perceptivity, seems to have lost its point out of new self-consciousness.
This generation's cast is stronger on dance than on song, and lyrics are often not as clear as they deserve to be. Ken Marshall and Jossie de Guzman are appealing but bland as the lovers, but Hector Jaime Mercado and Debbie Allen, as her brother and his girl, are strong actors as well as dancers.
This production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who probably didn't need to worry about the outcome this time.