West Side Story by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, after the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...you're never alone, you're never disconnected..."
Its time has come! West Side Story is fifty years old this year. The revivals in New York have failed in the past, perhaps for more than one reason: star power isn’t what this show needs is one reason and a relationship to the old struggles had lost their relevance is another. But now, after fifty years, relevance isn’t what this show has. It doesn’t reek of nostalgia either. Instead it is finally a picture of social and racial struggles that are not a part of our audience’s memory any longer. We have a vague recollection at best. We are seeing those times with jaded eyes, or new eyes, or younger eyes that cannot connect the conflicts between Polish immigrants in their third generations with Puerto Ricans in their first generations in a crowded New York City. We don’t have a Debbie Allen or Lisa Mordente presenting their pale lustre. We have fresh faces without history, just as the original presentation had. We have a new look at a brilliant piece of work. West Side Story is back and it is just as powerful as it was fifty years ago.
Julianne Boyd has taken an enormous risk presenting a show with such historical baggage for a long run in the middle of the month of June. This is a show that has failed over and over to attract an audience. But she has done it right. She has filled her stage with terrific dancer/actor/singers. She has allowed the concept of the brilliant Robbins to rule the day. She has given the music its due and, even though the show is scaled back a bit, she has created that sense of a larger world the show requires.
One person sitting near me marveled at the music and its order in the play. This is a person who knows the show only through its movie version, the version that haunts stage productions. Many things were altered in that version, but Boyd’s presentation gives the show back its clarity. The second act "Somewhere" ballet is a case in point. The last in a long line of dream ballets, a concept that dates back to "Oklahoma" and the remarkable work of Agnes DeMille, this one presents the conflicts, hopes and dreams of Tony and Maria, the young lovers in this play, of a world where tensions are replaced by understanding. It is astounding to see it again, to see its effectiveness and to note the reactions of the audience. They are transfixed by it.
The performers in this show are outstanding. Tony, played by Chris Peluso, is a rational guy, too old to be gang member, too young and inexperienced to break away from the ‘hood. His sudden turn to love instead of hate is totally believable and his singing voice is gorgeous, a high tenor which rings of youth with the interpretive skills of a more mature soul. As his best friend Riff, Justin Bohon is the opposite of his pal. A young man who will never mature, he is the presumed leader of his gang. Bohon shows a leader who cannot lead, but only follow traditions he himself established. There is a wonderful sense of frustration in his playing. He wants to understand change, but it can not compute. All of this plays in his face and his body language. Bravo!
On the other side of the street we have Bernardo, played by Freddy Ramirez for every sexy, and therefore threatening, aspect of the character. He makes foreign into a dirty word. He is handsome and strong and as completely understandable as possible. Ramirez is stunning in the role. You want to like him, but there is a macho aspect of the character that won’t allow it. He is never sympathetic, never asking for sympathy at any rate, and his death in the Rumble is devastating because his good looks make us want to like him, make us pray he’ll change. Death cheats us of this, even in the dream ballet that follows.
The women are equal to their men. The sweetness of Maria, as played by Julie Craig, is endearing and not cloying. She is pretty without ethnic strengths. She sings well, if slightly strained at the top end of the voice. Her surrendering of her soul to that of her soulmate, Tony, seemed very true to the character. Her friend Anita, played with gusto and a sneer by Jacqueline Colmer, is just the opposite. Even when she tries to help there is a sense of disbelief in her playing. She dances up a storm and sings with strength and is a standout in this excellent, and large cast of twenty-five performers.
Others in the cast who managed to stand out from their crowds were John Raterman as A-Rab, Billy Fagen as Chino, Beth Crandall as Anybodys, Kira Schmidt as Graziela, Vanessa Van Vrancken as Rosalia, Michael McGurk as Action and Matt Gibson as Diesel. Gordon Stanley is fine as Doc, but not as powerful a voice as he might have been.
The dancing is, as it must be, at the center of this production. The recreation of the movement created by Jerome Robbins is wonderful. With the long-standing prominence of the work of choreographer Bob Fosse in our minds, to return to the natural physical expressions of emotion and conflict that Robbins created is almost a revelation. Nothing is forced, nothing seems impossible or unreal or stretched out of human proportion. Every gesture, every extension, seems right.
The sets and costumes for West Side Story also have the right feeling for the time and the place. Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set is functional and correct. Anne Kennedy’s costumes seem to belong to the people who wear them. Scott Pinkney’s lighting is very, very good, and nowhere better than in the Tonight Quintet and the Rumble itself. The pit band, conducted by Darren R. Cohen, plays the music so well that is actually sounds like a fresh, new score.
Can one shout "Bravi!" after fifty years. One can. One should. One Does!