"West Side Story" is a high-voltage musical, but the production that opened a three-week run last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House is marked by a distinct power shortage.
I don't think time has taken the electricity out of this jagged, jangling portrayal of urban violence, circa 1957. Leonard Bernstein's score is as nervously beautiful as it always was. And while by today's standards, the show's view of gang warfare is fairly innocent, there's still a strong quotient of drama in the story, which transposes "Romeo and Juliet" to the alleys and underpasses of New York City.
This production even goes so far as to reproduce the original staging and choreography by Jerome Robbins -- and the dancing, which marries ballet to street behavior with finger-snapping grace, is sharp and vigorous. For all that, the evening tends to brown-out far more often than it heats up.
The cast, headed by Rex Smith, Leilani Jones and Katharine Buffaloe, just can't seem to flip the right switches and get the current flowing. With his cornfed good looks, curly blond locks and a fresh-scrubbed affability that suggests he has just climbed out of a wooden tub, Smith no more fits the hot concrete world of "West Side Story" than an eagle scout.
Furthermore, his singing voice, while pleasant enough, is not up to the soaring demands of such songs as "Something's Coming," "Tonight" or the sublime "Maria." You may even detect a country twang of sorts, hardly the sound you expect from a member in good standing of the switch-blade wielding Jets. As Maria, Buffaloe exhibits a far surer voice, although it is equally difficult to believe that she is supposed to be a Puerto Rican who has been in New York barely a month. If anything, she looks rather like a frizzy young waitress in a roadside diner, and her Spanish accent comes and goes with alarming irregularity.
Since Buffaloe and Smith do not constitute a natural couple (in fact, you may find yourself thinking he should be singing "I Feel Pretty," not she), the air of doom that hangs over their romance is far less moving than it might be. In the dream ballet, "Somewhere," the partnership even rubs up against the ludicrous -- Smith lumbering after the wispy Buffaloe and then, when he catches her, hoisting her to the skies as if she were a bundle of sticks.
That leaves Jones, who plays the spitfire Anita with appropriate skirt-swishing panache, but can't quite escape the impression that she is swamping her costars with her energy. A basic balance is all out of kilter. Although "West Side Story" is supposed to depict two rival worlds, hurtling up against one another -- in the school gym, at Doc's drugstore and in the shadows under an elevated highway -- the supporting players don't seem to belong naturally to one gang or the other. What was so impressive about the original production -- that instinctive sense of cohesion that knit the Jets on one hand and the Sharks on the other -- isn't half so evident here.
What will impress you, if you are willing to chalk up the performances to a bad day of casting, is the intrinsic strength of the material. Granted, we are far more outspoken on our stages today -- one of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics delicately refers to the "spit" hitting the fan, and the hoodlums singing "Gee, Officer Krupke," are still resorting to euphemisms of the "mother-loving" ilk, when their intent is actually far blunter. Otherwise, "West Side Story" remains a surprisingly potent expression of youthful bravado and the unspoken tenderness underneath.
Continually seeping through Bernstein's music, even when it is giving vent to the jittery dissonances of the city, are echoes of the peace and harmony that lie just beyond the reach of these warring characters. Robbins' choreography takes account of the aspiration in another way: in the daring leaps the dancers take, as if to wrench themselves free of their urban shackles; and in the open hands, thrust defiantly at the heavens, even as torsos come crashing to the ground.
The tight blend of music and movement is the most vital aspect of "West Side Story," but that vitality surfaces only sporadically, mockingly, in this production. Mostly, you will have the impression that you are gazing upon a museum exhibit -- faithfully reproduced, perhaps, but utterly lacking in animating zeal. Ruth Mitchell, who is responsible for re-creating the direction, and Tommy Abbott, who has conjured up Robbins' choreography, will never be accused of manhandling the material. But their reverence for the original turns out, under the circumstances, to be of fairly limited value.
The sets by Peter Wolf are also said to be inspired by the original designs of Oliver Smith. That may be true. The swirl of paper streamers, unfurling in the blackness as a prelude to the raucous gym dance, is a breathtaking image that remains with me from the first production. And there's a stunningly dramatic grandeur to Wolf's depiction of the underbelly of the elevated highway, where the fateful rumble between the Jets and the Sharks takes place. I can't believe, however, that the other sets looked quite so cheesy in 1957.
There are certainly glories aplenty in "West Side Story." But this time around, you'll have to settle for a production that alludes to them. The flesh may be willing, but the spirit is weak.
West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents; music, Leonard Bernstein; lyrics, Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Ruth Mitchell; choreographed by Tommy Abbott; original direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Sets, Peter Wolf; costumes, Stanley Simmons; lighting, Marc Weiss. With Rex Smith, Leilani Jones, Katharine Buffaloe, Luis Perez, Kevin Neil McCready, Elek Hartman, Daniel P. Hannafin, Jake Turner, Ron Orbach. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sept. 21.