Saturday, May 2, 2009

New York postcard No. 4: 'West Side Story' tweaks don't hurt, or help, a great show

Cody Green as Riff, with the Jets, in West Side Story.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)


Editor's note: Palm Beach ArtsPaper's Hap Erstein is on assignment in New York.

By Hap Erstein

NEW YORK -- It was a gray, drizzly day, with the weather threatening to break out into a rainstorm, but never mustering the energy to do so.

You know how umbrella vendors pop up on the street here whenever it starts to rain? Well, instead, I saw a guy selling surgical masks with rosy pink pig-snout stickers, a swine flu preventative no doubt. Ah, resourceful, entrepreneurial New York.

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Friday night I saw the revival of West Side Story, which is receiving mixed reviews for writer-director Arthur Laurents' concept of accentuating the cultural differences between the rival Jets and Sharks by having the Puerto Rican Sharks occasionally speak and sing in Spanish.

Translations were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony winner for last season's In The Heights. He was encouraged by lyricist Stephen Sondheim, but it nevertheless must have been daunting to rewrite the master's words, even if they were his very early lyrics for which he has long claimed to be embarrassed. My Spanish is not good enough to detect linguistic differences, but I found the choices of when the show went into Spanish to be fairly arbitrary.

I'd give the show points for attempting a new approach, though I wouldn't say it added much to the already transcendent piece.

Of course, it is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set on the mean streets of New York, with the rival Montagues and Capulets now rival gangs from the 1950s. Laurents' script captures the Bard's plot well enough, but the show's two enduring strengths are the Leonard Bernstein-Sondheim score and the brilliant choreography of Jerome Robbins (recreated by Joey McKneely, with a sizeable cast of talented young dancers.

Laurents' few new directorial touches -- like a clunky staging of the needless second-act comic relief number, Gee, Officer Krupke -- stick out badly, but the show is otherwise beautifully rendered.

West Side Story survives its new tweaks and remains one of the top handful of great shows of the musical theater.

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Up next: The Norman Conquests Trilogy, three interlocking comedies by Alan Ayckbourn about a randy British bloke named Norman eager to have an extramarital affair. Together they run about seven hours, beginning at 11:30 a.m. and lasting -- with meal breaks -- until 10:30 p.m. I hear it's terrific, but it does make me hope that it rains.

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