Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"West Side Story" at the Orpheum Theatre

West Side Story was my first musical love.  I first saw the movie when I was about 12, and fell in love with the story, music, and dancing.  I even made my own soundtrack by holding the tape recorder up to the TV (remember those days?).  But what I didn't know then was how important and ground-breaking this show was in the history of musical theater, with a dream team of Jerome Robbins (director and choreographer), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Arthur Laurents (book).  Jerome Robbins' choreography was unique in that he choreographed for each specific character, rather than a general chorus line.  He used movement to tell the story: the opening prologue with the Sharks and the Jets on the streets of NYC, the dance at the gym that goes from a fierce competition to the love story of Tony and Maria, the dream ballet in which they imagine a better world for themselves and their friends.  All of these scenes further the story and give us insight into the characters through dance and movement alone.

This production is the first tour from the 2009 Broadway revival, which closed early this year.  I saw it on Broadway just after it opened, and loved it; it was a thrill to see a musical I had grown up with live on a Broadway stage.  The recently deceased Arthur Laurents directed this revival, and as we learned in the post-show talk-balk with a few of the actors, it was his opportunity to "fix" things things that he wanted to change in the original 1957 production, but Robbins (a notorious control-freak and perfectionist, but with the brilliant talent to back up the attitude) wouldn't let him.  Joey McKneely reproduced and updated the original choreography, which some disagreed with.*  Another change from the original is that much of the Shark dialogue (both sung and spoken) was translated into Spanish, which also met with mixed reviews.  I didn't mind it because I know the whole show by heart, so I could translate in my head even though I don't speak a word of Spanish.  But I supposed it's unrealistic and unfair to expect that of audience members, so they ended up pulling back on it a bit; in the touring production the songs "I Feel Pretty" and "America" are only partly in Spanish (and really, the lyrics in those songs are not vital to the story, as the feeling conveyed by the songs is).  All in all I think it's a successful revival that maintains the spirit of the original, if not every detail; it's a slightly different vision of the show from one of the other creators.

This cast is phenomenal, especially as dancers.  West Side Story is more dance-focused than most musicals, with Robbins' intense balletic choreography.  Another tidbit we learned in the talk-back is that the Broadway revival cast had an average age of 30, while the touring cast has an average age of 23.  Their youthful enthusiasm, passion, and young joints are evident in the way they dance, as Stephen DeRosa (who played the principal at the dance, and provided many insightful comments during the talk-back) pointed out.  All of the leads are great, beginning with Kyle Harris, who is super charming and completely believable as the lovestruck Tony (although his voice has a tad too much vibrato for my taste).  Fun fact: the producers of the tour found him in the online West Side Story parody Web Site Story, which is quite clever and funny.  Ali Ewoldt as Maria has a gorgeous voice and a little spunk along with the usual sweetness, and Michelle Aravena as Anita delivers the attitude needed for the role.  The Shark girls are funny and entertaining, even when speaking Spanish.  The Jet boys are a pure pleasure to watch, led by Joseph J. Simeone as the tough leader Riff and Drew Foster as the loose cannon Action.  They brought the house down with the hilarious "Gee, Officer Krupke."  This song comes in the second act in the stage version, but was moved to the first act (pre-rumble) in the movie.  It really makes sense here, that in that desperate moment of confusion and loss after the events of the rumble they would let loose with some crazy antics, trying to process things through slightly inappropriate humor, as kids do.  The ending of the show is as tragic and heart-breaking as it always is, with the curtain lowering as one of the Jets gently places Maria's scarf on her head, a small sign of the healing that we hope will come of this tragedy.

This was the final show of the "Broadway Across America" season, which also included the gems HAIR and Billy Elliot.  I decided not to renew my season tickets for next year, because I'm only interested in half of the shows that are included, and I'm focusing more on new and/or local theater.  But it's always a thrill to see the best that Broadway has to offer right here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, even if Broadway is offering less in the way of new original musicals these days (I want to know when Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is going on tour!).  I welcomed the chance to see this new production of an old favorite again, and found it to be just as thrilling, enthralling, and heart-breaking as ever.

*On the night before the show I attended my third "Broadway Confidential" talk sponsored by Hennepin Theatre Trust (I previously attended events for HAIR and Jersey Boys).  This one featured local dancer/choreographer Linda Talcott Lee, who appeared in Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1989 and worked for the man himself (and therefore did not approve of the changes made to his original choreography).  It was fascinating to hear personal stories from someone who knew him and has worked on Broadway, and it gave me better appreciation for the dancing when I saw the show.  She also demonstrated a few dance moves as she talked about them (even though she was in a dress and heels!), and it's amazing how one precise, distinct movement could bring me right back to the exact scene in the movie in which it appeared.  Jerome Robbins' choreography for West Side Story is nothing less than iconic, and is a big reason why the show is as well.