Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Show & Tell Review: West Side Story

Yesterday I had three worries: I would be confused by the Spanish dialogue and lyrics, I would be distracted with my own preconceptions from the movie, and I would be disappointed with the execution of Jerome Robbins’ fantastic choreography, also danced by prestigious ballet companies from Paris to New York.  Today I have one worry: the cast of West Side Story will be in Newark, NJ before I manage to see the show again. 

Initially produced through collaboration by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins in 1957, West Side Story ran on Broadway for over 700 performances before touring the nation. The show was reintroduced on Broadway in 1980 and again in 2009, and although the production maintained the choreography, lighting, and design from the premiere, the language was tweaked to include Spanish. The final version traversing America today smoothly blends the more modern and culturally accurate dual languages with Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and Shakespeare’s iconic lovers’ tragedy: Romeo and Juliet.

Matthew Hydzik and Evy Ortiz, who play Tony and Maria respectively, effortlessly embodied these emotionally charged roles and beautifully performed the numerous songs that are so important to the success of the production.  Michelle Aravena radiated a perfectly cheeky wit as Anita and danced throughout the show with an equally impressionable spark. All of the classic songs from “I Feel Pretty” to “Tonight,” “America,” and “Jet Song” were presented without a hint of tiredness or cliché, providing a fresh performance for even those who have inadvertently memorized the show. The mischievous self-analysis by the Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke” is purely hilarious and was one of my favorite numbers. Action, played by John Drake, leads the gang through euphemistically peppered possibilities of their non-traditional upbringings, and indulges the audience in a much-appreciated comedic break from the emotionally intense second act. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the soft images and lyrical dancing of “Somewhere” showcased the balletic background of many of the cast members, not to mention the power of Jerome Robbins’ incredible choreography. Set against an unadulterated white backdrop, the artistry of the voices and dancing controlled the stage sans messy mechanized machinery or elaborate distractions.
I loved the show, and as I already insinuated, all three of my worries were quickly quelled. While any and all Spanish beyond a simple “sí” seems esoteric to my decidedly non-Latin ears, the foreign dialogue and lyrics infused in the show added authenticity to the cultural struggle and didn’t detract from the storyline comprehension at all. Deliberate and well-timed mispronunciation of Spanish phrases by Tony and the Jets even provided a humorous aspect to the social division. 
My second fear of the evening, while technically obsolete as the stage version was made prior to the film adaption, was also eradicated after the first few scenes. As Maria twirled her way into “Dance at the Gym”, the image created by the lighting, costuming, set, and choreography eerily mimicked the slightly psychedelic graphic effect from the move. A minor detail, yes, but certainly worth commending in a world where each light and sound effect is agonized over and analyzed thoroughly. 
My final and most pressing fear was also entirely reversed from the very first scene. The Jets and Sharks established their territory and physical prowess with a balance of grace and athleticism only danced by those with classical training, and set a precedent for the energy and power of the rest of the show. Backed by the West Side Story Orchestra, the entire cast fulfilled Jerome Robbins’ timeless choreography and ameliorated all lingering worries from my mind. The orchestra, conducted by John O’Neil and composed of touring musicians as well as local musicians, was splendid, and contributed to the humor, drama, and tension of the show without ever uttering a single syllable.
The show is, in a word, spectacular. So take Riff’s advice, “play it cool,” and buy your gang a ticket. 

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