A Show Like That: Estoy Impresionada

I have a confession to make: I don’t like West Side Story. I appreciate its importance in theatre history, I’m indebted to it for launching the career of Stephen Sondheim, who I adore and revere, and for spawning Gypsy, which I think is one of the greatest musicals ever written, but West Side Story and I have never gotten along. That being said, Arthur Laurents’ production, which opens at the Palace Theatre on Broadway tonight, March 19, 2009 is an incredible night spent at the theatre and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.
Jerome Robbins’ fantastic choreography has the potential to undercut the realism of the entire show within the first moment if not handled with extreme proficiency because really, nothing makes a gang look like a bunch of sissies quite like a ballet introduction. But here, in the hands of these extraordinary dancers and Joey McKneely, (who reproduced the choreography) the movements are sharp and powerful, the intentions are clear and energized and the action moves between awing dance and violent rhythmic stage combat. For the first time, I bought it.
The one thing about this version of West Side Story that makes it unique is that Arthur Laurents has chosen to have a large portion of the Puerto Rican characters speak their lines in Spanish. Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish and Anita sings “A Boy Like That” in Spanish. The bilingualism works on multiple levels. It defines the characters’ relationship to their new country simply, as Anita speaks mostly in English, and then switches back for “A Boy Like That”, while Bernardo and Rosalia almost always speak Spanish. It also adds a degree of realism to the show, as obviously on the streets of New York in the mid-fifties, the immigrant population would have spoken in their native tongue with one another. It also adds a degree of chaos, and an off-putting sense of isolation and difference which gives Maria’s line to Tony, “of course, they are the same” a lot more punch. At the same time, I do worry about the general Manhattan audience and their reaction to having such a classic pillar of musical theatre rendered so unrecognizable. I heard a few people around me grumbling, but at the same time, it is West Side Story, surely everyone is somewhat familiar with the plot? Laurents has also made sure that key plot lines are said, or at least reinforced in English. It’s a bold choice, especially for a playwright to make in his own classic text, and I appreciated the fact that he mixed the show up. But, I know, there are purists around every corner and I bet they’ll be angry as pitchfork wielding townsfolk. Nuts.
My favourite aspect of this show was Josefina Scaglione’s beautifully unique portrayal of Maria. This Maria is in charge. She is confident and strong and self-assured and I felt like she wasn’t just letting the world happen to her, she was in control of herself, and it made the end of the play so much more tragic because I knew she had tried her best to make love victorious. Initially, it seemed as though Scaglione was playing that it was Maria’s limited English which made her appear so direct, as she had not yet learned how to be subtle and how to insinuate, but as she grew, her confidence and strength built naturally, and at the end she didn’t seem like the victim. She was not the doe-eyed ingénue these musicals generally produce, but a woman calling the shots that the audience should stand up and cheer for.
Matt Cavenaugh’s Tony is an endearing every-man sort of character with a beautiful voice- although I have to tell you all Toronto’s Michael Hughes’ rendition of “Maria” is still the best I have ever heard. Cody Green is fantastic as Riff, and all the Jets and the Sharks are wonderfully strong. The testosterone on display in the dance scene is overwhelming, and it is so obvious that these boys have overflowing repressed sexual tension, hatred, ego and chaotic energy to spare. Tro Shaw is heart wrenching as Anybodys, the tomboy who wants to be accepted by the Jets. Shaw infuses her with overlapping earnestness, vulnerability, strength, hatred, frustration, love and an eagerness to please and longing to be validated in some small way. One of the most awesome moments of the show was the frozen silence after Riff is stabbed, which takes its time and then erupts into absolute chaos after the stabbing of Bernardo. One of the other highlights is “Gee, Officer Krupke” which is pretty near perfect.
The best performance in the entire show is Karen Olivo’s portrayal of Anita. She is absolutely phenomenal. She radiates joy in “America” and looks as though she is having the most fun it is possible to have in life. It’s impossible not to smile while watching her. This contrasts of course with her horrifyingly strong collision with the Jets in Doc’s store and her reaction to Bernardo’s death. It’s truly a star turn. If she’s not nominated for a Tony Award, there is something wrong with the world.
This show had me, a girl who tends to roll her eyes, standing applauding with tears glistening in my eyes. It’s powerful and it’s different, which is a lot more than most shows on Broadway can say these days (Shrek?! Gimme a break!) If you are planning to head to New York, this would be one of the first shows I would recommend seeing. I bet it’s the closest a revival of West Side Story has gotten to eliciting the same powerful audience response as the original production in 1957.
West Side Story is playing at the Palace Theatre 1564 Broadway in New York. For tickets visit http://www.ticketmaster.com/ or http://www.broadway.com/.

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