West Side Story

Okay, so maybe horror is a bit strong. The current revival of West Side Story is not a horror. But it is not for a lack of trying. Bad direction, awkward book revisions and weak or ill-suited actors turn one of the best American musicals into a drab and poorly executed tourist trap.

Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, West Side Story tells the tale of star crossed lovers Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, a recent Puerto Rican immigrant whose brother is the leader of the Jets’ rival gang, the Sharks. With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and original choreography (mostly faithfully recreated here) by the great Jerome Robbins, West Side Story has become one of the most acclaimed and beloved pieces of art in the American Musical Theatre canon. What trips up this production are both the hubris of original book writer Arthur Laurents and some of the cast.

Laurents, a theatre world luminary, was widely applauded for his direction of last season’s Gypsy. (Laurents wrote the book for Gypsy, too.) With this revival of West Side Story, he tried to make lightning strike twice but alas, it was not to be. Serving as director and book updater, Laurents presents an utterly flat production. His direction of certain scenes, scenes that, when played well, are thoroughly moving, instead clunk along. His book revisions, particularly the glad-hand shouting “Abstinence” during the dance scene anytime a couple gets too close, are terribly awkward and make you wish that this were a concert version of West Side Story or even just the West Side Story suite that the NYC Ballet often includes in its season. Then we’d get the good stuff – the stuff that made West Side Story an instant classic: the score and choreography. (The original book, I should note, is moving. Upon reading through the libretto for the first time, I found myself crying at Laurents’ description of Maria crumbling as she holds Tony in her arms. And this ending wasn’t a surprise; I’d read Romeo + Juliet multiple times, seen the movie of West Side Story too many times to count and taken in a couple of local stage productions.)

Unfortunately, though, that’s not where the horror ends. This cast just doesn’t get it right. Some of it is the direction but some of it is the actor’s lack of ability. Generally, the ensemble is good but drab. Their performances are rather lackluster – no fire or fight behind their eyes (or jazz hands.) More specifically, my problems lie with Matt Cavanaugh and Karen Olivo, who play Tony and Anita, respectively.

Cavanaugh is nice enough to look at and a decent actor but I have two major complaints: the two times I’ve heard him try to do a New York accent (the other time was in A Catered Affair) it comes out New England-y. There is a distinct difference between a New York and New England accent but Cavanaugh doesn’t bother to learn it. My other beef is that his vibrato is out of control – in a bad way. Sometimes a little vibrato is called for; it’s not called for, though, in full force on every note. Every note! Even on notes that don’t seem long enough to even discern a vibrato, Matt Cavanaugh sneaks it in. He’s leaving the show sometime this winter. Smart money says that unless they stunt cast, which they don’t need to, whoever takes over the role (perhaps an understudy movin’ on up) will be leaps and bounds better.

Karen Olivo. I know many people in the theatre community, both patrons like myself as well as actors, who know Olivo, like her and respect her talent. I’m sure she really is a lovely person but I don’t think she’s very good. (Her husband, Matt Caplan, on the other hand, was one of the best Marks I ever saw in Rent and was great in the world premiere of American Idiot, which recently ended its hugely successful run at Berkeley Rep and is likely to come to NY this spring.) I disliked Olivo last season when she was in In the Heights (which itself was disappointing) and she didn’t do anything to change my opinion in West Side Story – if anything she only confirmed my original reaction: she can’t sing and she definitely can’t dance. I know – how could someone who can’t sing or dance be in West Side Story? It’s such a beautiful score and the choreography – Jerome Robbins choreography! And, “Wait a second,” you’re saying, “she won the Tony.” As Raul Esparza supporters (particularly circa 2007) will tell you, sometimes the Tony folks get it wrong. Karen Olivo can sing – just not all the notes she’s supposed to. And not powerfully. And she can dance, if dancing is to be defined, as in Webster’s, simply as moving rhythmically to music. She can do that but again, not well. Not well enough to do justice to Jerome Robbins’s brilliant choreography. Olivo herself is Latina and she’s playing the spit-fieriest of the Latin spit-fires in Anita. Yet, her hips don’t move. There’s no spirit in her steps. Instead, she relies on her hair and dress for fluidity while she remains stiff and boring. For me, the most thrilling part of Jerome Robbins’s choreography, here and elsewhere, is that you see the music in his movements. This is not the case when his moves are performed by Olivo.

What is perhaps so egregious about this production is that it is uninspiring. Consider a family vacationing in New York and deciding to see a Broadway show. They recognize West Side Story – it’s supposed to be one of the greats – manage to get tickets and plop down in the Palace theatre after a day of sight-seeing. If this were a great, or even good production, maybe the 11 year old sitting with his bratty sister and parents would think, “Wow! So this is what theatre’s all about. I want to be a part of this.” Instead, this clunky and drab production will probably only inspire the 11 year old to fidget and cry out, Kurtz-like, “The horror! The horror!”