Over the years, I've defended West Side Story against charges that it was sappy, sentimental and racist. My job just got easier with the current revival of the play at the Palace Theater. I saw it in a preview performance last night that was angry, attentive to differences, and sharply passionate. This is a great version of West Side Story, a production with roots in the Fifties that has been translated to meet the emotional and artistic questions of our own time.
From the opening scene, with six menacing Jets onstage, it conveys greater anger and urgency than the 1961 motion picture. The gang members seem younger and scarier than in the film version. The Jets and Sharks have a twitchy hatred each other. The cops are thugs. (There is no buffoonery to the character of Officer Krupke, only menace.)
Maria is more overtly sexual, and her moments with Tony have all the passion of a young woman who is trying to squeeze a lifetime into 24 hours. And when Anita goes to Doc's drugstore to convey a message from Maria for Tony, there is no disguising the fact that the Jets rape her.
The depiction of Puerto Ricans also stands out in this production because most of the dialogue among them is conducted in Spanish. "America" (which is delivered with cutting irony) is sung mostly in Spanish, and "I Feel Pretty" entirely so. Exchanges with the Jets take place in fractured phrases of mutual incomprehension. Overall, the use of Spanish gives the Sharks a striking autonomy and identity.
If the staging of this version of West Side Story is one strength, another is the cast. At last, Hispanic actors get a chance to shine in numbers. Maria, played by Josefina Scaglione, who has opera training, sings gloriously. Anita, played by Karen Olivo of In the Heights, is knowing, fiery and sexy. Bernardo, played by George Akram from Venezuela, is smooth and tough.
From the Jets' side, Riff, played by Cody Green, has the manic energy of a dangerous teen. Tony, played by Matt Cavenaugh, is sweet and friendly. His singing voice sometimes lacks depth, but he gains stature by the ending of the play.
There is a new wrinkle in the ending of this version. While I won't spoil the show for you by specifying it, I will say that this production provides less hope of redemption than the film.
This is a more somber version of West Side Story than the film we are used to seeing. If that feels more realistic than the film version, perhaps it is because we live in a time of less optimism.