West Side Story

They were going to call it East Side Story. They didn’t, and West Side Story, which opened fifty-three years ago on Broadway, changed the face of musical theater.

Originally this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet was to focus on the anti-Semitism behind the conflict between an Italian-American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family living in the Lower East Side. Instead, West Side Story centered on the Hells Kitchen area of New York City where a group of immigrants – Puerto Ricans – clashes with the Americans already in the mean streets.

By moving their locale a few miles west and focusing on the quintessentially American struggle with assimilating new cultures and languages, the creative team broke new ground and an American classic was born.

The problem with classics is that the Powers That Be – in other words, producers – tend to develop nervous twitches when innovators want to breathe new life into an old musical. There is a lot that is right with this production, which boasts a recreation of Arthur Laurents’ (he also wrote the book), Broadway direction by David Saint and the original Jerome Robbins’ choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely, but there is a lot more wrong with it. In the end, it’s a hollow museum piece best appreciated for what it used to be rather than what it is.

Is it fair to compare the original to this new production? In other instances, it wouldn’t, but when this new production has gone to such lengths to reproduce the original, it’s hard not to. Beginning with the opening number ballet and moving on to “Dance at the Gym,” the show-stopping “America,” and “Somewhere,” it’s obvious that Robbins’ daring and original movement (for its time) is now quaint and dated.

The Jets and the Sharks are more skilled dancers than warring gang members, and the menace is gone. Thankfully, the powerful love story is still there, with a very strong Tony (Kyle Harris) and a very talented Maria (Ali Ewoldt’s voice is fragile yet determined at the same time). Michelle Aravena’s Anita is a three-dimensional character that is both funny and heartbreaking.

There has been an effort to bring some contemporary relevance to this production of West Side Story – primarily in the book and in some of the lyrics. Lin-Manuel Miranda (of In The Heights fame) was hired to re-work and infuse the bi-racial story with actual Spanish into the text and music. However, it is evident that most of the actors who handled the Spanish, primarily Ewoldt in “I Feel Pretty” and Aravena in “A Boy Like That” had trouble enunciating the lyrics. The Spanish portion of the songs were muffled and hard to understand, even for a Spanish speaker like myself.

For some odd reason, this touring production takes those two songs and mashes them together into a sort of Spanglish that backfires on itself. It doesn’t work as effectively as it does on the Grammy-winning Broadway cast recording that daringly blends “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” together presents them completely in Spanish, giving a much-needed cultural authenticity to the whole show.

Leonard Bernstein’s beautiful score and Stephen Sondheim’s witty lyrics are definitely the highlight of this musical. For those who have never had an opportunity to see this on stage, it is an adequate production, if soulless, safe, and by the numbers.

Through January 2, 2011 at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. For tickets and information, please call 1-800-982-ARTS (2787) or visit www.BroadwayLA.org

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About Obed Medina
Obed received his BA in Creative Writing from the University of California at Riverside. He has freelanced and volunteered at various theatre companies in Los Angeles since 2002. He launched his own workshop theatre company in 2008 and has produced six original one-act plays and one Off-Broadway hit. Currently, he is living in Ashland, Oregon working on his writing and founder of Collaborative Theatre Project.

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