West Side Story may be the best musical that I've never actually seen work on stage. I mean no disrespect to the piece itself, which I consider to be almost a masterpiece. (Read my review of the recent Broadway West Side Story revival). I've just never seen a production that did the piece full justice.
The score, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim, may be the most moving and dramatically effective theater score of all time, despite flaws that Sondheim himself has pointed out in the lyrics. (Actually, he has called his West Side Story lyrics "embarassing.") The Jerome Robbins choreography ranks among the best ever created for a musical. And the libretto, by the recently deceased Arthur Laurents, actually in some ways improves upon its Shakespearean source by changing the primary motor of the tragedy from chance to racism.
So, West Side Story is a stunning piece of musical theater, without question one of the top 10 works in the musical-theater canon. (See my list of the 100 Best Musicals of All Time.)
But on stage, the piece has two significant liabilities, the first being the incredible challenge that it presents in terms of casting. I'm not just talking about the need for triple-threat actor/singer/dancers, although that's considerable, to be sure. I'm referring to the task of finding performers for the two central roles of Tony and Maria. Interestingly, Tony and Maria don't need to be great dancers, despite this being perhaps the ultimate dance show. But it's apparently a huge undertaking to find performers who can both do justice to Bernstein's score and provide the requisite depth of characterization to fully evince the pathos of the show's central relationship.
Case in point: the current national tour of West Side Story, which I caught on Tuesday night at the Colonial Theater in Boston. The tour features Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt as Tony and Maria, respectively, and in terms of their acting, both performers were top-notch. But Harris appeared to be having some vocal issues, which manifested themselves in extreme vibrato and cartoonish scooping. His "e" vowels during "Maria" were risibly wide and tall. Clearly the show is taking a toll on his instrument and he's had to compensate, but it was extremely distracting. Ewoldt's Spanish accent seemed rather off, and her singing, while considerably stronger than that of Josefina Scaglinone, who played the part on Broadway, had a sort of harsh edge to it, and she ran out of breath on some of the soft high notes.
And then there are the gang members. Has there ever been a production of West Side Story in which the Jets and the Sharks were convincingly menacing? I certainly haven't seen one. I suppose it would be well nigh on impossible to find a couple dozen outstanding dancers who were also physically imposing and...well...let's be frank, masculine. I suppose if you're going to err on one side, you might as well go for the best dancers, and thankfully the entire dance corps for the current tour is absolutely first-rate.
The other huge liability in West Side Story, at least from where I sit, is the "Somewhere" ballet, which I have always found unbearably quaint and precious. The movie version wisely cuts this segment, probably because it would have seemed too theatrical. But cutting it from the show would leave Act 2 without a major dance number. The movie solves this by moving "Cool" to a later point in the story, and changing the singer from Riff to Action. (Riff being...er...indisposed at this point in the story.) The impetus for this sequence is dramatically valid, but there's something about the execution that robs the second act of momentum and throws off the tone of the show.
The recent Broadway production gave the "Somewhere" vocal solo to a young boy, a character named "Kiddo" that Laurents created for this production, but who really didn't do anything else throughout the show. Having this young child suddenly burst upon the scene to sing "Somewhere" in a boy soprano voice was treacly and shudder-inducing. Thankfully, for the tour the producers decided that having a child along for the ride would prove logistically challenging, so the solo goes to the Anybodys character, played here by the kick-ass talented, fierce beyond words, Alexandra Frohlinger. (Full disclosure: Alex is a Boston Conservatory grad, and one of my former students. But she's still pretty frickin' fierce.)
One final note, about the much-discussed Spanish added to this production. As you may know, the late Arthur Laurents brought in Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer and lyricist of In the Heights, to translate a huge chunk of the show into Spanish. (Read my review of the West Side Story CD release for my take on Miranda's work here.) When I saw the show in DC, entire scenes and songs were in Spanish, including "America," "I Feel Pretty," and "A Boy Like That." It was a huge mistake, and robbed these important scenes of their dramatic weight.
The tour cuts back on the Spanish considerably, trying to strike a balance between realism and comprehension, but you could see the effort with every line that passed, and again, it was distracting and deleterious. In the theater, we have this convention in which foreign characters speak in English, and we just assume that they're actually speaking their native tongue. It was an admirable experiment on Laurents' part, but ultimately a failed one.
The West Side Story tour is currently booking through June of 2012, including upcoming dates in Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Portland, and Seattle. Even with my above reservations, I recommend taking it in. You won't see finer dancing anywhere, and the score itself is worth the ticket price.