THIS MUST BE the year of "West Side Story." First we had the new Leonard Bernstein-conducted digital recording with an operatic cast; and now, at the Kennedy Center Opera House, we get a revival of the classic musical, with direction, choreography and visual design based on the original 1957 production.
"Revival" somehow seems inappropriate. Created by the giants of a new American musical theater -- music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents and choreography by Jerome Robbins -- "West Side Story" seems perennially fresh. It also seems to be always with us.
The material -- a star-crossed romance between Polish Tony and newly arrived Puerto Rican Maria (borrowed from "Romeo and Juliet") set against a racial and territorial conflict between two rival street gangs -- is as powerful and moving as ever.
But this production, produced by Diana Corto (herself a former Maria) and Francine LeFrak, feels more like a concert performance with sets and dancing than a full-blooded stage work.
Things get off to a slow start with an oddly dispassionate "Jets Song," and though sung and danced with expertise, the numbers seem disconnected till well into the second act. There's scant passion in the love story, and the mean streets of Manhattan seem too antiseptic and safe -- there's little danger in the climactic rumble. It falls to the words and music to move us. And to Bernstein and Sondheim's credit, their work comes through time and again.
The show suffers from uneven casting. As Maria, Katharine Buffaloe is as sweet an ingenue as one could wish for, with a thrilling soprano on a giddy "I Feel Pretty" and the affecting "I Have a Love." Buffaloe's erratic accent makes it hard to imagine that Maria is just one month off the boat, however.
The weak link is star Rex Smith, whose name is grandly placed above the show's title. It's now a commonly accepted ploy to plug in a Name as a box office lure, but that transparent strategy backfires seriously here. Where Smith spoofed his own pop star mannerisms to good effect in "Pirates," those same self- conscious mannerisms undermine the straight role of Tony. Smith has a pleasant, unexceptional voice, but he sings metronomically, as if glued to the beat, with none of the dynamism and gliding grace the melodies call for. And the less said of Smith's leaden dancing, the better.
Leilani Jones, last seen in "Grind," sizzles as sassy, streetwise Anita, but her exuberant electricity and effortless dominance of the stage are out of proportion to her role. The rest of the ensemble comes through with the necessary vitality for the big numbers: The Shark girls do particularly well with "America"; the Jets jazz "Officer Krupke" back to life; and "The Dance at the Gym" is really jumping.
And if the detached feeling and incongruously glossy costumes make this look more like a Yupper West Side story, it's still a pleasure to hear these songs again, and see the original staging concepts and Robbins' rule- breaking choreography.