Familiar Story Revitalized: West Side Story Comes Into the 21st Century
The past two seasons have offered a hot/cold mix of musical revivals, depending upon who you talk to. For this viewer, no revival is hotter than West Side Story, which is igniting the stage at Broadway's Palace Theatre. Staged by its author, Arthur Laurents, at 92 a true Broadway legend, the show is as fresh, biting and moving as ever. The very subject matter - the racial divide in New York City and related gang violence - caused quite a stir over 50 years ago when the show debuted. "Scandalous!" some cried. But everyone could eventually agree that the score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and, most dazzlingly, the fully integrated choreography by Jerome Robbins had forever changed Broadway, moving it forward in ways that are still felt today. This was my second viewing of the revival, almost nine months to the day apart, and I will offer comparisons where appropriate, but the thrust of this review is the performance seen earlier this week.
A New, Edgy Reality
The subject matter, sadly, hasn't lost its relevance in 21st century America, an African-American in the White House, or not. Racism, hatred, senseless violence and gang warfare continue to dominate headlines. And so, West Side Story is a perfect candidate for revival. Like the recent and brilliant re-conception of Gypsy, also by Laurents, this version has been given a re-look, a tightening, and a new, more dangerous edge. Played straight, WSS can come across as almost quaint, with its "daddy-o"s and "pow pow, crack-o, jack-o"s, and its overly melodramatic love at first sight notion. But here, while the language and instant love remain, it is all grounded in a very serious reality. The characters are much angrier, their words bursting out like bullets, used to hurt not only their enemies, but each other as well. In the souvenir brochure, Mr. Laurents explains this bitter edge and the contrast of love throughout the show: “This is a story of love that cannot survive in a world of bigotry and hate.” Of course, there is the love at first sight, tempered by a very real fear of being caught, mixed with the sweetness of youthful abandon when the whole world slips out of focus except for the person in your arms. But it also explores the love between “brothers” Riff and Tony, and the willingness to stand up and die for each other should it come to that. There is also clarification of romance vs passion vs violence, both in terms of sexuality and unity of cause.
In every element of the show, there is a definite tension, seen in the smooth changes of scenery (minimally suggestive and yet dominating as designed by James Youmans), the harsh, unforgiving light, and the equally harsh, unforgiving shadows (masterfully moody and often shocking as designed by Howell Binkley). David C. Woolard's costumes are a mix of the familiar (Anita's signature purple dance at the gym dress) and mostly an austere, sharp look at the time and the message of this version. Gone are the full suits worn by the Jets at the dance, replaced by tight vests, the occasional tie, the occasional jacket, and everyone in their rumble-ready Converse All-Stars. The Sharks, too, show that mix - the traditional more colorful dress in vibrant tropical color contrasted with the threatening use of black. These boys, are more dressed up, in light of escorting ladies to a social event (their classiness never more evident than here), but they are also dressed in such a way as to suggest that by merely losing a jacket or tie, they are also ready to rumble at the drop of a hat.
The Language Barrier
The Company: The Adults