Were Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins tackling West Side Story in today’s gentrification mode, it wouldn’t be about the destruction that two warring 1950s street gangs wreak on themselves, but a tale of romance between star-crossed heirs to competing gourmet delicatessens. Fortunately, because Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics, much of Laurents’ book — phrases like “Daddio” notwithstanding — and Robbins’ choreography are still 100-percent vital more than 50 years since they were first seen on Broadway, the Laurents-directed revival of West Side Story, now at Broadway’s Palace Theatre, proves to be no more outmoded than Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s frequently footnoted tragedy on which it’s based.
Among other attributes, there’s still undiminished vigor and urgency in the brilliant Robbins choreography — carefully and athletically recreated by Joey McNeely — and in the Bernstein score as played bracingly by a 28-piece orchestra (among them, two percussionists in facing auditorium boxes) that Patrick Vaccariello conducts.
Meanwhile, the biggest shift in the production is in Laurents’ libretto, so that when the Puerto Rican Sharks and their women are among themselves, they speak both Spanish and English. Moreover, In the Heights‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda has been enlisted to work (with Sondheim’s blessing) on writing all-Spanish lyrics for “A Boy Like That” and “I Feel Pretty.”
Much of the current West Side‘s appeal depends on the cast — which is to play off a Sondheim lyric — not only large and funny and fine, but up to fulfilling the tragic dimensions that Shakespeare and Laurents built into the show. The real discovery here is Argentinian import Josefina Scaglione, who has every ounce of innocence required of Maria and whose soprano is pure and steady. Matt Cavenaugh, last seen on Broadway in A Catered Affair, is a tough yet compassionate Tony, and his singing of “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” is all a fan of the seminal tuner could ask.
In the supporting roles, Karen Olivo is a fiery, understanding Anita, while George Akram, Cody Green, Curtis Holbrook, Joshua Buscher, Tro Shaw, and Joey Haro as various Sharks and Jets sing, dance, and act with zip-gun zip. As the adults, Lee Sellars is a properly beleaguered Officer Krupke, Steve Bassett fumes well as Lt. Schrank, and Greg Vinkler conveys the frustration of convenience-store proprietor Doc.
In revising West Side Story to guarantee it feels as persuasive as possible, Laurents does make a few missteps. The most obvious is the scene at the very end when Maria is tending to Tony’s fallen body in the playground. Originally, members of both chastened gangs formed a respectful retreat while the policemen looked on. Now, claiming that no law enforcement officer would allow such a brazen removal of evidence, Laurents has trimmed the number of witnesses and keeps them on the spot. At the very least, he should have brought all gang members back — and contrite — at the slow curtain.
But although Laurents dilutes the ending of his own work, he nonetheless retains the heated theatrical magic that always was and always will be West Side Story.