By Pat Craig
"West Side Story's" sparkling and emotionally engaging new revival opened Wednesday night in San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre. But there was quite a bit of sparkle and emotional engagement before the overture could start -- much of that due to the glowing embers of cell phones flickering like tiny campfires in the palms of the Giants' faithful.
The city's beloved baseball team was in the first game of the World Series and fans weren't going to let a little thing like an updated version of a classic American musical keep them from savoring every pitch until the "really, we're serious" version of turn off your cell phones alert was sounded. At the opening curtain, as an announcer informed us, the Giants were ahead, and by intermission, they had already won -- a fact that got some of the loudest applause of the evening.
And the show wasn't bad, either. It was incredible, in fact. ...Arthur Laurents, author of the original book, got a second chance at his creation, and vowed he was going to turn it into the musical he always wanted to make. Social constraints of the time (the original debuted on Broadway in 1957) prevented certain usage of language, and the public wasn't ready for a musical where some dialogue and lyrics were delivered in Spanish.
That, as it turned out, made a considerable difference without substantially changing the story, which, of course, is drawn from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." What Laurents has is give the show a more intimate feeling and make the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girls, more complete as characters. They are frustrated as strangers in their own land, and the use of Spanish immediately evokes their separation and alienation from the English-speaking Jets and their girls.
The musical conflict between the Sharks and Jets reflected the situation on the streets of New York more than 50 years ago. The fundamental problems haven't changed much since then, as we continue to wrestle with new cultures arriving at Liberty's doorstep.
More importantly, though, this production sets the story of the two gangs and a brief and star-crossed love affair between Maria (Ali Ewoldt) and Tony (Kyle Harris as a young person's game. The casting here has made the lovers, both breathtaking in their roles, enormously young. They are giddy, giggly and gleeful in their happy high moments and lethally somber in their times of abject gloom.
These revolve around a gang fight between the Sharks and the Jets, where Tony killed Maria's brother, Bernardo (German Santiago), after Bernardo killed Tony's best friend, Riff (Joseph J. Simeone).
Maria is urged by Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita (Michelle Aravena) to abandon Tony ("A Boy Like That"), but Maria counters with "I Have a Love," and she and Tony do get together with plans to escape to the countryside, where there are no gangs or guns.
It isn't to be, of course, but from the moment "West Side Story" begins with the legendary dance prologue through the neighborhood, faithfully reproduced by Joey McKneely from the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, the show glows with pleasant memories and enchants with brilliant new moments. It plays against a remarkably flexible set by James Youmans, used for maximum effectiveness by director David Saint.
The fundamental problem with the show is its depiction of gang violence and the mean streets of New York, two things that don't immediately conjure angelic voices and tunes like, "Somewhere" and "Tonight." On the other hand, if you were looking for authentic gang violence, a musical is probably not the place to find it.
Theater Review: ‘West Side Story’ opens at the San Francisco Orpheum
Last night, those first 45 seconds at the Orpheum were nothing short of breathtaking.
by Cy Ashley Webb
West Side Story
Revivals are difficult affairs. While on one hand, there is a pre-existing covey of die-hard fans, expectations are almost impossibly high. This is particularly true with a masterpiece like West Side Story where you know within the first 45 seconds of the Prologue whether the thing is worth sitting through.
Last night, those first 45 seconds at the Orpheum were nothing short of breathtaking. The first scene reminded me of a particularly dark, dark, version of the Nutcracker that I saw years ago in which individual rats emerged from every nook and cranny of the stage. Individual Jets emerged through shadows, through windows, from off-stage, creating a disquieting feeling as those first iconic horns sounded. Having thrown the audience off balance, the director immediately delivered what they expected: stellar, athletic ballet that seemed more than anything else to be happening off the ground. I don’t know how the dancers seemed to pause and stop midair, but the effect was nothing less than stunning.
The production that opened at the Orpheum last night was informed by Arthur Laurents who directed the 2009 Broadway revival. The script was slightly changed – updated for a grittier feel while still delivering on the original. These changes were thoughtfully chosen. The squeaky-clean Jets upping the ante to zip guns and knives may have worked in 1957, but are laughable in 2010. Laurent’s darker version maintains the audience on edge with the underlying violence, while keeping almost all of the original script intact. Some of the now-hackneyed language is offered up as irony, much to the appreciative hoots from the audience.
Laurents introduced new Spanish text to the songs and dialogue. Initially, this was vaguely annoying, but as it recurred I appreciated how it threw me (and presumably at least some other significant part of the audience) off-balance. Not understanding the words, I listened all the more intently, appreciating the degree of agitation and manic energy that just might not be possible to convey in English.
Other changes such as the buffoon social worker Glad Hand ineffectively calling “Abstinence! Abstinence!” throughout the high school dance scene reduced the audience to peels of laughter at the impossibility of defusing the sexual energy of the production.
Michelle Aravena and German Santiago were in top form as Anita and Bernardo. Both had enormous presence and delivery as the alpha pair of Sharks. At first blush Riff seemed palid, but this point of comparison might not be entirely fair as we could enjoy Anita and Bernardo riffing off each other.
Great efforts were taken with the lighting to emphasize shadows and light. While this was most obvious in the balcony scene where the shadows of Maria and Tony were cast down stage, I found myself watching more and more throughout for other instances of the same. This made for a rich production, as did the blending of color.
West Side Story will be in San Francisco only until November 28. This updated production clearly delivers. Thanks to these changes, West Side Story may be with us for another 50+ years.