“West Side Story” – a glorious and gritty musical triumph at the Bushnell

 By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

This first-rate revival of “West Side Story” is a more hard-edged tale of the Hispanic and Anglo gang turf wars on the streets of New York than the original 1957 production.
The theatrical and social conventions of the era neither allowed the use of authentic street language nor discouraged racial inequality. “West Side Story” is a perfect example of white-washing shows. In its original form it portrayed Hispanic gangs as the bad guys while making heroes of the Anglo gang members, and the verbal and body language was sanitized.

The 21st-century was the right time to bring authentic speech, non-bigoted characterizations and a more honest book to one of the theater’s most acclaimed musical productions. It already had a highly acclaimed score by Leonard Bernstein, powerful character-defining and plot-driving lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway debut; and Tony Award-winning choreography by Jerome Robbins. So who better to rewrite the libretto than the legendary librettist, playwright, screenwriter, director Arthur Laurents? He wrote the original one for “West Side Story” and was never happy with many elements of his first effort.

He decided to re-write and direct this radically different version of the show.  The only serious flaw in the “new” book is that Mr. Laurents retained some of the euphemisms such as “mother-lovin’’ “krup you” and “buggin” instead of using the authentic profanity that real people have always used on the street.. Laurents has succeeded in putting the Anglos and the Hispanic on a level playing field and given a realistic jolt of heat between Tony and Maria in all their love scenes, including the show-stopping  duets, “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.”

And the one song that so perfectly articulates the heart and soul of this musical variation on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and elicits the most profound emotional response from audiences – as all great musicals should but so seldom do today - is “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love.” This first sign of Sondheim’s lyrical genius says, “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is your life.”

Added to the greatness of Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents the “West Side Story” stage explodes with some of the most exciting and energetic dancing ever seen in any musical, ever.  And the ensemble is flawless; it leaves you breathless and exhilarated. Originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins it’s skillfully reproduced in this superb national company by Joey McKeely.

This revival of “West Side Story” on which this tour is based opened on Broadway to critical acclaim in 2009. It was written and directed by Arthur Laurents who died at the great age of 93 on May 5, 2011. This national tour company is deftly directed by David Saint. The West Side Story Orchestra is conducted by John O’Neill and associate conductor Paul McCaffrey with Steve Sanders on Keyboards, Rick Donato on drums and Michael Meza on trumpet – all superb musicians who make Bernstein’s music soar.
Kyle Harris as Tony and Ali Ewoldt as Maria give life, vulnerability and passion to their characters, while brilliantly interpreting the songs as though the words and music were written especially for each of them. The chemistry between Kyle and Ali is a rarity seldom seen in today’s current musicals.

Michelle Aravena as Anita is all fire, music and passion. She is bold, strong and takes command of each of her numbers. Ms. Aravena is a superb dancer/singer who is also a fine comedic actor as in “America” and then poignant and heartbreaking in ‘A Boy Like That/I Have A Love,” in which she warns Maria to quit Tony.

One of the levelers in giving equal weight to both the Jets and the Sharks is the use of Spanish lyrics in many of the songs.  When the Puerto Rican girls are putting together an outfit for Maria to wear to the dance she and they sing “I Feel Pretty” first in Spanish and later in English, giving more authenticity to the song.  In the neighborhood “Tonight” quintet, the Sharks chorus responds in Spanish to the threats and boasts of the Jets singing in English.

The exhilarating dancing and vocal talents of the ensemble are unquestionably five-star worthy. Each member of the cast beautifully wears his or her character like an alter-ego.  Especially engaging is Drew Foster as Action, who shows us a slight madness in his characterization of a juvenile delinquent ready to explode.  John O’Creagh as Doc, the owner of the drugstore hangout, nails his part when one of the Jets rips off some cigarettes from him and then asks “do you mind?’  Doc replies, “Mind? I have no mind! I’m the village idiot!”

“West Side Story” is not only a love story, but also one of bigotry, hatred, violence and in some ways, hope.

Even Arthur Laurents, in re-writing some of the libretto mentions that although this show was written some 54 years ago, we still haven’t learned, and the same prejudices and phobias exist, and in many places are worse than they were a half century ago.  Yet to see “West Side Story” is an invigorating experience which, judging from the number of young people in the audience, might just, this time around, change some hearts and minds for the better.

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