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June 3, 2009

West Side Story

by Jesse North

Today I learned a harsh lesson in rushing. And it came at a high price. For the first time ever, I rushed without getting a ticket. Here is the tale about my first strike out.

Accompanied by my fellow rushing pro friend, Kym, we headed over to the Booth Theatre in the early a.m. to rush Next to Normal. I will admit – I have gotten complacent while rushing. Chalk it up to too many successful and easy rushes, or maybe my rushing ego was getting in the way. But I made a misstep. We arrived at the Booth at 8 a.m. Some might say that’s early enough, but during the week of the Tonys, with Next to Normal being nominated for 11 awards, and it being something you and a friend have your hearts set on seeing – it’s not a good idea to get lazy. There were 18 people ahead of us. I knew we wouldn’t be able to get rush tickets. I did, however, think we were a cinch to get the $36.50-priced tickets that Normal offers (a fantastic deal, and a great backup option to rush). But believe it or not, the new musical that started out with tepid ticket sales is now boiling hot – the performance was sold out. The person in front of us snatched the last two rush seats and there were no other seats available.

We had slacked off and it cost us. Furthermore, the feeling of defeat weighed even heavier because it was the first time in our rushing history that we had come up without a ticket. My eighth time seeing Spring Awakening, Kym and I were able to buy the cheapest seat in the house when all the rush tickets were gone—at least we were able to see the show. Not so today.

Absolutely desperate to catch a show, we turned to the one other production playing that we had a desire to see—West Side Story. West Side Story, however, sells nearly all its tickets every week (the week of May 25, it played to 97.3 percent capacity) and employs a ticket lottery policy which is extremely popular. We knew the odds of winning would be slim. But with the extreme disappointement (and touch of self loathing, might I add), we decided we had to give it a shot.

We arrived at the Palace Theatre around 4:45 p.m. We both wrote our names on slips of paper and waited in anticipation of the 5 p.m. lotto drawing. There were about 30 people playing the lotto, so the odds looked steep. What is it they say about that cult… sorry, I mean book called The Secret—positive thinking will bring you what you want in life? Well, after the day we’d had, I had it set in my head that we were winning these tickets. The third name called was mine, and it really is true what they say—your first and last names are the most beautiful sounding words in the world. After Kym threw me her wallet (she had all the dough), I purchased our $26.50 front row tickets and walked away, feeling like I had corrected a massive wrong (and learned an important rushing lesson as well). Do not take the rush for granted!

I have read nothing but poor or ambivalent reviews for this revival of West Side Story. Well after seeing it, I can tell you—the critics can suck it!

So how do you make a Broadway classic that has been revived and seen iterations in high schools and community theaters for decades interesting again? First, book writer Arthur Laurents steps in as director. Having the 90-year-old co-creator helm the production is quite a concept. Second, you infuse new thought into the show by making it bilingual. Let the Puerto Rican characters speak in their native tongue! (You’ve never raised an eyebrow in movies where all European characters speak with British accents—even Germans?) As we saw with Guys and Dolls earlier this season, it only takes small brush strokes to freshen up an old song-and-dancer.

The hefty helping of Spanish in the new West Side Story has been controversial since its announcement. I really got into it. Ever been in a foreign country and the hotel room TV has no English-speaking channels? You somehow manage to follow the plot anyway. The same goes for this version of West Side. I lost none of the plot, and was really engaged by Latina spitfires Karen Olivo and Josefina Scaglione verbally lacerating each other in Spanish. Most of the credit goes to the super talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was personally asked by lyricist Stephen Sondheim to translate parts of the show (hand-picked by Sondheim—not bad). In additions to passages of dialogue being converted to Spanish, so are the classic numbers “I Feel Pretty” (“Me Siento Hermosa”) and “A Boy Like That” (“Un Hombre Asi”). Both those moments stood out as highlights of the show.

The roles of Tony and Maria and the romance they share can sometimes wear thin. But here, with Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione as the star-crossed (ACK!) Tony and Maria, there isn’t a dull moment to be had. The two are seeping chemistry out their pores, and their biggest moments together (“Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart”) are more touching and sexy than they are puppy love. Scaglione particularly steps out as an extremely refreshing, fierce Maria. She’s not meak like traditional Marias. She might be young, but this Maria stands up for what she believes and demands what she wants. Scaglione makes some excellent yet subtle acting choices on the stage, and is truly wonderful.

Karen Olivo inhabits the rich role of Anita in what is truly perfect casting. She is funny, sexy, and firm all at once. When she’s on stage, it’s difficult to watch anyone else. And just forget about noticing any of the other performers when she’s involved in a group-dance sequence. But most importantly, she doesn’t stay in sustained sassy mode. In her crucial moments that call for heartbreak and fear, Olivo delivers definite goosebumps.

What really makes this West Side Story a dish that’s warmed through to the center is the strong supporting actors and ensemble. In a show with such iconic characters as Tony, Maria, and Anita, the West Side ensemble truly does not fade into the background. Greg Vinkler is absolutely hearbreaking as Doc—the only caring eye that watches over these violent teenagers. Tro Shaw as the brushed-aside Jets wannabe, Anybodys, is a shining heart of gold underneath a dirty plaid shirt (and she shaved her head a la Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry fashion—that’s dedication). And Cody Green is absolutely magnetic as Riff, the Jet leader who is the example for this gang that sheds its outdated, almost corny nature for true, street bravado. And what a dancer!

This really is a classic dance musical, and this production does its reputation justice. Joey McKneely’s reproduced choreography of Jerome Robbins’ original steps are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Watching this gigantic ensemble cut up the stage with sharp, synchronized moves gave me chills. My knowlege of dance isn’t vast, so it’s definitely significant when I start getting emotional by watching choreographed routines. Not to mention how damn sexy this entire cast is while dancing.

McKneely’s choreography is responsible for keeping this production kinetic. But the scenes with no kicks feel a little stagnant, and I think Laurents’ direction gets a bit unimaginative in these interludes. There’s too much “standing still” followed by “two steps to the left, two steps to the right, and repeat” tendancies going on. The static blocking doesn’t do any favors for the sometimes plodding book (gee, sorry Arthur!), making the dialogue seem even more so.

This much-hyped revival of West Side Story is damn-near perfect. I was moved by the tumultuous environment in which these characters live, and thrilled by it at the same time. A truly stellar cast and well-placed reinvention maintain’s this musical’s spot as one of the best cultural products to ever come out of New York.

Play: A- / Lottery: A

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