Stage Review

West Side Story (2009)

West Side Story, Josefina Scaglione, ... | West Side Story Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh
Image credit: Joan Marcus
West Side Story Josefina Scaglione and Matt Cavenaugh
EW's GRADE
B

Details Opening Date: Mar 19, 2009; Lead Performances: Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione; Writers: Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim; Director: Arthur Laurents; Genre: Musical

Finally, everyone can stop complaining about ''I Feel Pretty.'' Stephen Sondheim has said his lyrics made him ''cringe'' (example: ''I feel pretty/Oh, so pretty/I feel pretty and witty and bright/And I pity/Any girl who isn't me tonight''); librettist Arthur Laurents thought it never belonged in the show. In the new Broadway revival of West Side Story, it's called ''Siento Hermosa,'' as translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning composer-lyricist-creator of Broadway's hit In the Heights: ''Hoy me siento tan preciosa/Tan graciosa que puedo volar/Y no hay diosa/En el mundo que me va alcanzar.'' It's rendered irresistibly by Argentine ingénue Josefina Scaglione — this production's enchanting Maria — and her sassy backup singers (Jennifer Sanchez, Danielle Polanco, Kat Nejat). So much so that it becomes more than a mere throwaway song for a simpering love-struck teen, more than just an upbeat start to Act 2 to distract the audience after Act 1's deadly finale. Now it's a revealing character song, a cheeky girl-group number, and a giggly slumber-party scene rolled into one.

It's tempting to reward this uneven but enjoyable revival — helmed by 91-year-old Laurents himself — solely for the bilingual innovation. But for 52 years, the Jets have had the upper hand over their Spanish-speaking rivals, the Sharks, in this musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet set among mid-'50s Manhattan street gangs. The Jets have more lines and more scenes; they get three songs of their own — one which exists solely to establish their superiority (''When you're a Jet you're the top cat in town''). They even had their own language: ''Daddy-O,'' ''Cracko-jacko,'' ''Buddy boy.'' Now, Laurents and Miranda have leveled the playing field; by translating a few key scenes — our first encounter with Maria and Anita (the sensational Karen Olivo) in the bridal shop, the pre-''America'' banter between the Puerto Rican guys and their girls — the Sharks have more presence. By letting them sing in Spanish, they reclaim their own language as well. A distraught Anita, disillusioned with America, does not sing ''A Boy Like That,'' but rather ''Un hombre Asi.'' (Manuel's lyrics are not literal translations; they simply preserve Sondheim's original rhythms. ''A boy like that, who'd kill your brother'' has become ''Ese cabrón mató a tu hermano'' — roughly, ''that a--hole killed your brother.'') And no need to sweat it if your high-school Spanish is a little rusty (or nonexistent). You'll understand pretty much everything — especially if it's coming from the gorgeous, expressive Scaglione or Olivo.

In fact, whenever Scaglione or Olivo are on stage the show kicks into gear. As Maria's square-jawed, star-crossed lover Tony, Matt Cavenaugh sings beautifully and melts convincingly into Scaglione's arms — but as soon as they stop pawing at each other, Cavenaugh goes cold. Venezuelan actor George Akram, as Shark leader Bernardo, tears up the floor with Olivo in the ''Dance at the Gym,'' but the rest of his performance lacks the kick of his mambo. (His Jet counterpart fares no better — Cody Green's Riff runs the emotional gamut from intense to more intense.) Virtually none of the Sharks or Jets carve out an actual character, save Ryan Steele's doe-eyed Baby John and Curtis Holbrook's Action, who brings a subversively sinister shock to the slapstick antics of ''Gee, Officer Krupke.'' And of the adult roles — well, the less said, the better. Why does Greg Vinkler play drugstore-owner Doc not as a grown-up voice of reason but as a crotchety old man who just wants you kids to get off his lawn?

In his just-published book Mainly on Directing, Laurents promises that ''in this production, the ability to act was going to be on a par with the ability to dance and sing.'' Not quite. He also writes, ''Beginning with the original production, dancing and singing were always the focus, the centerpiece.'' They still are. And when you're talking about Jerome Robbins' exhilarating choreography (Joey McKneeley has re-created the iconic high-jumping, fist-pumping steps) and the thrilling Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim tunes (no matter how often you hear it at weddings, ''One Hand, One Heart'' can still elicit tears), that's a pretty fine centerpiece for a Broadway show. B

(Tickets: Ticketmaster.com or 212-307-4100)

Originally posted Mar 18, 2009
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