Sunday, October 16, 2011


The 2009 Broadway revival of "West Side Story" was a huge success.  I saw the roadshow last night with the Memsahib at the Dallas Musical Theater at Fair Park.  It had its moments, some very fine ones I'll get to, but I was disappointed. 

When they take Broadway musicals on the road, do they scale them down?  I thought the production seemed undernourished.  One of the most beautiful and exciting symphonic scores in American musical theater, with two gangs of male dancers and their girlfriends.  Man, with some of that music, I expected that stage to explode with the Latin-tinged rhythms and updated theatrical dance sensibilities.  The Fair Park stage isn't enormous, but for some reason, the production only rarely ignited. 

In fact, it is probably not possible to reduce the dancing cast of this show.  West Side Story is famous for giving many of the dancers speaking parts as gang members.  I have read that casting for the show is difficult because one has to find performers who can sing, dance, and act.  The show failed to take off for other reasons.

Bernardo and Anita:  "Mambo"

The acting is a problem, because the script was unrealistic even in 1957, when it opened on Broadway.  The "white" (actually, the children of European immigrants) Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks are supposed to be juvenile delinquent gangs, but in 1957 excessive vulgarity, explicit sexual references, and violent racial slurs were not permissible.  ("Spic" and "wop" were apparently exceptions.)    The result is a script (by Arthur Laurents) that invents a kind of beatnik patois that sounds very odd coming out of the mouths of actors who are supposed to be violent teenagers.  I've always had sympathy for actors struggling through some of these scenes, but a show that sounded unusual but fresh in 1957 sounds downright weird now. 

I'm not sure at whose door should be placed another of my complaints.  Amplification of musical productions is a mixed blessing.  On the other hand, you can hear everything.  On the other, if not correctly modulating, it's ear-splitting in every seat in the theater.  Perhaps generations of theatergoers since the sixties are accustomed to extremely loud musical performances, but this music -- much of which is pitched very high, including the parts sung by males -- was sometimes painful to listen to.  I assume that these shows either carry with them, or specify, their own sound engineering subject to the capabilities of the local venues.  All I can tell you is -- this show was really, really, loud.

But here is my major complaint:

Large chunks of dialogue among the Sharks were conducted in Spanish.  This was annoying enough, but someone had the bright idea of taking large chunks of Stephen Sondheim's classic lyrics and performing them in Spanish. 

Of course the Sharks were Puerto Rican.  Got it.  But the actors are not speaking for one another's benefit, you know?   Note to revival producers:  Those people on stage, they're not real people having real conversations -- they are actors speaking lines to entertain the audience.   There were probably patrons in the full house who knew what was being spoken, but if it exceeded five percent I would be surprised.  I would be surprised if that percentage were much exceeded in any city in which this was performed, including New York City.  And we're not talking about the occasional phrase -- we're talking about entire (although usuall brief) conversations that the audience could not understand.  (Most of the intra-Shark dialogue was spoken in accented English.)  Asking the audience to figure it out from the context is arrogant and presumptuous.   It sounded like what it probably was -- political correctness.  And like political correctness usually is, it was annoying and, most damaging to the production, a desperate lunge for verisimilitude that came across as fake, trying to make a point that the play itself was not interested in.

Too bad.  There were things to enjoy in this production.  The performers were talented, even though no one would mistake these fine dancers as 1950s ethnic gang members.  The leads handled the very difficult-to-sing score beautifully.  (The songs are very "rangy" -- you know, like the National Anthem, going from low to very high -- especially for the male singers, and feature Leonard Bernstein's characteristically jazzy intervals.)   Some parts of the dance numbers were striking. 

So while I enjoyed the show -- it is hard not to enjoy that music and orchestration -- I cannot recommend it whole-heartedly.  If you decide to see it, you might visit the Rosetta Stone kiosk at your local mall and see if they have an abridged course in Theatrical Spanish.

No comments:

Post a Comment