There are a few inherent dangers to remaking something that is over 50 years old and regarding a classic to many people the world over. Yet the revival of West Side Story decides to take the original story and bring it back to the stage, with mostly positive results.
West Side Story may have been written over 50 years ago, but the story of two young lovers trying to defy the odds, people at war with those they consider different and a world ill equipped to help either side, tragically still rings true for us now. Much like William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which this play is based on, the universal themes are still alive and well today.
The dancing is the strongest part of this show and the cast uses every surface of the set to make their point. The Jerome Robbins balletic inspired dance numbers are so perfectly stylized to evoke a feeling of fighting, of posturing, and even the sense of Romeo and Juliet-ish families feuding that it easily becomes the highest note of the show. The dancers crawl up and over fences, through fire escapes and slink through shadows. The opening “Prologue” where Jets and Sharks encounter each other through the streets is not only wonderfully danced but is staged in a way that shows how delicate the balance of the streets is for them. Through dance the dominance of the Jets and Sharks swings depending on which group can seem the most defiant and tough and how many people are there to back them up. The dance sequence of “America” as an argument between the Puerto Rican girls when their men leave for the rumble is high energy entertainment. Michelle Aravena as Anita is full of energy and passion as she defends her newly adopted homeland.
Kyle Harris as Tony is a little dreamier and shy then Tony may have been played in the past. He is full of innocent optimism and hope and played as more pensive than one would expect from a co-founder a gang. Ali Ewoldt as Maria, who is a bit fierier, which makes sense for a girl who has just arrived from her homeland eager to spread her wings and who is chafing under her the constraints set down by her brother. Together their belief in themselves and their resolve to willfully ignore those around them fleshes out their characters in a way that makes seem more accountable for their fate than as helpless pawns.
The biggest alteration, and the one that seemed to cause the most discussion amongst the audience, was that of the added Spanish to the dialogue and a few songs. The Puerto Rican Sharks speak both English and Spanish and a few verses of their songs are in Spanish as well. While Anita prods Maria to speak in English Bernardo speaks to her in Spanish, another way that the language is used to accentuate the fact that Maria is being torn between two worlds. The songs “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” both go in and out between Spanish and English, which makes sense realistically because when heightened emotions are in play most people revert back to the language with which they are most comfortable. If you are not overly familiar with the plot of this play or the lyrics to these songs, and you don’t understand Spanish, you may feel a bit lost. Personally I like the Spanish and think that it adds to the sense of the socio-economic times these characters are living in and helps emphasize the insurmountable barrier of the Sharks cultural estrangement from the city where they reside.
Finally, the one thing for any audience to remember is that this is not the movie; this is a revival of the show the movie was based upon. This stage show is based on the original, so if songs or scenes seem different than you remember from the movie don’t let it spoil your enjoyment of the show.
West Side Story is playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre until January 9th. For more show and ticket information please go to www.broadwaysd.com
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