NEW YORK — Few shows traverse the depths of joy and sorrow reached in West Side Story. Like Romeo and Juliet, the play that inspired it, the musical sets the already extreme emotions generated by first love against the irrational forces of hate.
The tale of a doomed romance between the sister of a Puerto Rican gang leader and the co-founder of a posse of all-American hoodlums was pretty hot stuff when West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957. But the key to its visceral power has always been Leonard Bernstein’s score, a spine-tingling olio of jazz, Latin and classical textures and rapturous melodies that reveal as much about Tony and Maria’s feelings as the wonder-struck lyrics provided by a very young Stephen Sondheim.
Those elements are very much intact in the new revival (* * * out of four) that opened Thursday at the Palace Theatre. But there is a nagging self-consciousness here that clearly owes much to director Arthur Laurents. Laurents also wrote the original book and is determined that this production enhance its authenticity and fair-mindedness.
To that end, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the young creator and star of In the Heights, last season’s Tony Award-winning musical focusing on modern-day Latin Americans in upper Manhattan, was enlisted to translate parts of the libretto and some of Sondheim’s lyrics into Spanish. Certainly, most people are familiar enough with the basic story and songs so that when Maria sings Siento Hermosa instead of I Feel Pretty, we get her drift.
Still, the translations can seem gratuitous and at times patronizing. No art form requires or rewards the willing suspension of disbelief more than musical theater; we don’t need to hear Anita, the sassy girlfriend of Maria’s brother Bernardo, sing A Boy Like That en espaÃ±ol to know that her emotions have been piqued. Similarly, listening to Bernardo’s gang, the Sharks, roar about an upcoming rumble with the rival Jets in their native tongue doesn’t shed any fresh light on their perspective.
West Side Story didn’t need a culturally correct face-lift. While the film adaptation has its cartoonish aspects, as Laurents has duly noted, the musical is and always has been fundamentally anti-xenophobic. We root not for the Jets or the Sharks but for Tony and Maria, who want to reject the fear and small-mindedness surrounding them.
It’s certainly not hard to root for Matt Cavenaugh’s handsome, likable Tony, or the angelic but warmly coquettish Maria of Josefina Scaglione, whose sterling lyric soprano is perfectly suited to the role. Karen Olivo’s witty, fiery Anita is another asset; she may not be the best dancer to ever tackle the role, but Joey McKneely’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’ choreography lets her shine and the others soar.
To a point, that is. The irony is that Laurents’ attempts to be inclusive and grittily realistic — the final scene in particular suffers for his insistence on technical accuracy — make the show seem no fresher, only a tiny bit less magical.