West Side Story Revisited

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West Side Story was originally written with a Romeo and Juliet premise in mind. 

When in 1949, Jerome Robbins, approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about adapting his Romeo and Juliet concept to a musical depicting the conflict between an Italian Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family on the Lower East Side with the focus on anti-Semitism, he had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get the play off the ground.

The play was to be called East Side Story.  Later it was adapted to highlight the conflict and racial acrimony between the new Puerto Rican immigrants and the Irish who were trying to hold onto and claim their turf.  During this time, national newspapers were riff with reports of gang activity between the two races.  Like Romeo and Juliet, the Puerto Rican Maria and Irish Tony would be the ill-fated lovers trapped in different cultural disputes that played out via gang rivalry.  The musical was then to be entitled West Side Story.

The original 1957 Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and marked Stephen Sondheim’s debut to Broadway.  The show ran for 732 performances starring Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert with Chita Riveria playing Anita and Ken Leroy, portraying Maria’s brother, Bernardo.  The 1961 film version featured Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer.  Rita Moreno played Anita in the film version.

Mostly roles for minorities were circumvented when it came to casting minorities in the few lead roles written for them.  Neither the 1957 Broadway version nor the 1961 film version cast a Puerto Rican in the lead role of Maria, and sadly neither did the current version of West Side Story presently playing at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.  This is what made the interracial factor blurred.

While there were a few Latinos in the play, most did not reflect the variation of hue that is reflective of the Puerto Rican community.  This was even pointed out by the two women making out on my left who apparently mistook the Palace Theatre for the Palace Hotel.  It seems between feeling each other up, munching on French fries and gurgling down cokes, they took time out to note that the cast was so light they could barely tell the two racial groups apart.

Josefina Scaglione, a 21 year old Argentinean opera singer, is totally miscast in the role of Maria.  One wonders why in this day and age a Puerto Rican singer/dancer/actress couldn’t be at long last cast in the role written for a Puerto Rican performer.  While a good singer, Ms. Scaglione’s acting is uninspiring and dull and simply not believable.  Her pallor is so pale one would think she was part of the rival Irish gang (the Jets) rather than a relative of the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang).

During intermission several folks commented on that fact and I had to concur.  Ms. Scaglione, who I believe has the makings of a wonderful performer one day, has not yet gained the experience suited for a lead on the Broadway stage.  Matt Cavenaugh (Tony) held his own but even he did not garner the excitement one hopes for when attending a Broadway production.

The best actress in the entire production was Karen Olivo who played Anita.  Having honed her craft in “In the Heights” both on and off Broadway, and in Rent and Brooklyn, as well as having appeared in Law & Order on TV and in a few movie roles, she was comfortable on stage and rose to her role as Anita.  Olivo was especially effective in the bedroom scene where she admonished Maria for being in love with the killer of her boyfriend Bernardo who was also Maria’s brother.

One never gets a sense of real grief from Maria concerning the death of her brother.  It was so marginalized it appeared non-existent.  The role of Bernardo however was skillfully portrayed by Venezuelan born dancer and performer, George Akram.

The dance numbers were creative and awe inspiring and that is where the production came alive.  Also, the orchestra was superb.  I cannot complain about the singing because if anyone has heard the music of West Side Story, they recall songs like “America,” done well in the current production by Olivo, Sanchez and the various female cast members.  Cavenaugh gave a good rendition of “Maria,” and both he and Scaglione did a fine number in “Tonight.”

David Woolard did an excellent job with the period costumes, making them colorful and inventive.  The world renowned choreographer Jerome Robbins justified his celebrity with marvelous and inventive dance numbers that were a real feat of choreographic splendor.

The majority of the casts are young singers and performers who made the production worth seeing and I do recommend it to those interested in seeing the current production of West Side Story.  If you are looking for the West Side Story you know in film or saw originally on Broadway, this isn't it.  However, it still champions the story line and the West Side Story Orchestra conducted by Patrick Vaccariello and Maggie Torre holds up the musical end splendidly.

If you are seeking entertainment for entertainment’s sake, West Side Story is a must see. 

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