WEST SIDE TRAVESTY
If the West Side Story at the Pantages Theatre were a college production, it might pass muster, particularly if your favorite niece or nephew had a part in it. Otherwise, what you will see bears as much resemblance to the recent Broadway revival as a farm mule does to a thoroughbred racehorse. Oh, sure, the great Leonard Bernstein score is intact and the Stephen Sondheim lyrics still shine brightly. And you simply can’t do any show that Jerome Robbins choreographed without slavishly copying every movement he created (it’s one of the laws of the theater which cannot be broken). So you hear the songs and you see the dances, but they pass by uneventfully and without an ounce of genuine theatrical excitement. Generic to the core, they just lie there, like smoked salmon on a plate, sans bagel, sans cream cheese, sans everything.
There is no sense whatsoever that this takes place in an urban jungle like New York City, despite the sweep of James Youmans’s scenic design. These gangs – the Jets and the Sharks both – could just as easily live in Kansas; their accents make no attempt to capture the grit and rage of youth growing up in a hostile environment. Those speaking Spanish – one of the few things that have been kept from Arthur Laurents’s directorial plan – are exempt, of course, from this criticism, although, strictly speaking, some of the Spanish accents do lack a certain authenticity. Then there are the dances. The opening is so sloppily done that Joey McKneely, who reproduced the Robbins choreography, might just as well have jettisoned the original to at least accommodate the abilities of the dancers in tow. There is no snap or tension anywhere. And in the dance at the gym, the lighting is so diffuse that it is impossible to focus on Bernardo and Anita; they disappear into the crowd which is, sad to say, not merely unfortunate but downright stupid. And the beautiful and lyrical ballet to “Somewhere,” which one would have thought could never be less than brilliant, takes place amidst so much clutter that it fades away right before your eyes. This is choreography better watched with one’s eyes closed.
Take the songs. Please. The voices are not bad; they’re just not good enough. The duet between Maria and Anita, which had operatic grandeur in its Broadway incarnation, has been reduced to a screaming match.
And David Saint, the journeyman director who is largely responsible for what goes wrong here, should know better than to ask actors of limited experience to engage in comic shtick. Shtick is not my favorite thing to begin with, but, if you’re going to try to get a laugh, you had better know what you are doing and why. The result: most of the attempts at comedy fall flat. And in the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number, the feeling that these gang members have recently been witness to a killing is lost completely; without a trace of irony or self-realization, it’s just trifling. If it were trifling and funny, it might be said to work on its own terms, but the fun it provides is pretty slim.
As for the audience, it was particularly loutish, applauding before a song reached its conclusion, before a dance came to an end. And then, as if on cue, they gave a standing ovation to this mediocrity. It led one to wonder what they would do if they saw the real thing. Perhaps they wouldn’t even know the difference. But, then again, too many of the Los Angeles reviewers don’t seem to know the difference, either. There is nothing sadder than seeing a masterpiece of the musical theater morph into an ungainly cash cow.
photos by Joan Marcus