Tuesday, October 6, 2009

West Side Story” becomes unstoppable force under writer’s direction

Arthur Laurents, aged 92, directed this Broadway revival of the show he wrote in 1957. Back then, he, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim knew they were taking a risk. Their use of contemporary music raised the bar for dance. It was so radical that some people, favoring tamer shows like The Music Man, hated it at first; but now the bravery of these three men has really paid off.

It’s amazing that Laurents directed this show at his age. It must be exhilarating, coming back to the play he wrote 52 years ago and seeing how much of a difference it has made in millions of people’s lives. And isn’t that the goal of all artists? Not to mention the difference he made in Olivo’s life, which she reveals at the Tonys in her amazing acceptance speech for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

According to the NY Times, “Joey McKneely recreates the choreography of Jerome Robbins, who conceived the idea for the show and directed it originally.” The original must have been magic: McKneely’s translation absolutely stole the show. This emphasis on choreography shone in the storytelling and character interaction, especially in the introductory scene, with the gangs hunting each other down in packs and dancing in unison; in the “Dance at the Gym” scene with Glad Hand, the administrator, shrieking about abstinence ; and in the ensemble songs, such as “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

“West Side Story,” endeared as a classic in America, appeals to universal audiences as well. The 20th century music and societal issues lend themselves well to this ancient romance story. According to an article published in the LA Times last February, “The show, powered by timeless numbers like ‘Maria,’ ‘Tonight’ and ‘Somewhere,’ changed the face of American musical theater; it introduced subjects like murder, racism, gang violence and attempted rape into a genre accustomed to more genteel subjects.”

Our class had the great honor of attending a talkback with some of the cast. We heard from Michael Mastro (Glad Hand), Eric Hatch (Action, understudy), Haley Carlucci (Maria, understudy), Matt Cavenaugh (Tony), Ryan Steele (Baby John), and George Akram (Bernardo).

Carlucci told us she’d done more than 30 shows, and you could tell that she’s had that much experience: fresh, light, and realistic, playful yet womanly, she really stood out in this production.

Mastro told us that their production once integrated much more Spanish. He joked that Yankees who don’t speak Spanish are used to hearing it often and not understanding it, but audience members from Tennessee and such places where Spanish-speakers are not as common were complaining. Now the goal is to put Spanish in where the scenes will still make sense to non-speakers while also keeping up the symbolism. For example, in the first half of the show Anita—played by the dynamic Karen Olivo, the brilliant woman whom I utterly heroine-worship now—doesn’t speak a word of Spanish because she wants to integrate into American society; by the end of the play, with her boyfriend murdered and her community falling apart, she speaks nothing but Spanish. Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish but when speaking sticks firmly to English—now that she’s fallen in love with an American boy.

We were told that Arthur is heavily involved in many projects. He’s “got a lot of energy,” one of the actors said. Indeed, energy was the theme of our talkback. Asked if eight performances a week are draining, one actor responded that it’s such an honor to do this show that it’s okay if you go three weeks without a day off. Hatch told us that he plays a different role every time he goes on stage—and while some may find this excruciating, to him it’s stimulating. Matt then pointed out that Broadway’s a marathon, not a sprint. The actors need stamina, and they need the energy audiences bring to the show.

Speaking of energy: while the women in this play are dynamic, round characters, the men stay the same. For example, Tony doesn’t change; he only falls in love. He proves himself prone to testosterone-fueled viciousness: sorrow turns to vengeance and murder. Meanwhile, Anita gets over her sorrow, even finding a kind of sharp beauty in it because it all comes from her love.

But perhaps that’s being unfair. Perhaps if Tony had been pulled into a one-on-one situation instead of the overwhelming groupthink environment of a rumble then he would’ve made the right decision. After all, Anita isn’t infallible, either. When she went to deliver the message to Tony that Maria was waiting for him—even though she despised him for killing her beloved Bernardo, she agreed to do this in the name of love—she changes her mind and tells a lie she knows will break Tony’s heart.

Still, she demonstrates that she’s stronger than any of those men: she walks completely alone into the Jets’ den, fields their verbal insults and ignores their aggression. But then, the boys gang up on her and hold her down while one jumps on her and prepares to rape her. One of the most profound moments in the play is when, once the Doc comes and halts the gangbanging, Anita finally picks herself up and hauntingly proclaims, “Bernardo was right. If one of you was bleeding in the street, I’d walk past you and spit on you.”

Then, in another of the most poignant moments in this play, Maria proves that even as she goes wild in grief—weeping and screaming, “You ALL killed him…with hate! Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate”—she still can’t bring herself to kill. The difference between the destructive gang mentality and the individual’s liberty to choose life and love manifests in Maria’s choice. She doesn’t commit violence like the men or suicide like Juliet; she only demands of a Jet boy to bring her black shawl over to her, and then she mourns her love quietly.

Considering how much wiser the females are it’s unbelievable that the male characters still constantly dismiss them throughout the play. Anybodys, played by Sara Dobbs, provided one recurring reminder of this. She was a tough cookie but was never allowed to play with the big boys, even though they knew she was perfectly capable of their foolishness. Then, on a more obvious level, Anita’s boyfriend Bernardo shuts her down in their arguments by saying things like, “¿Vamos or no vamos?” when she’s trying to talk sense to him. Another example comes in the form of the appropriately named Hotsie, played by the striking Marina Lazzaretto. Riff tells her to get out of the pharmacy—with a slap in the rear—because she’s not welcome in the room when real business is going down.

Another inherent lesson was something one of the Jet boys declared to Office Krupke. The line stood out, despite the fast pace of the scene. It was something like, “We’re only hoodlums to you because we don’t act like you think we should.” This protestation, reinforced later with the hilarious song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” shows how even within the same culture, different people have different values and beliefs. That’s why small communities have problems, too, even those which don’t have to worry about immigration, economic competition and racism.

The dream sequence was the only moment of happiness and gentleness in the second half of the play. The only taste of peace was an illusion: a hard-hitting realization which the beautiful chorus and brilliantly designed light sequence really brought home. Not to mention, the substitution of those pervasive purple and orange gang colors with blue and white—symbols of purity and unity—and green and brown—signifying nature and utopia—brought me to a heightened sense of aestheticism even as my heart grew heavy with sadness and empathy.

This production of “West Side Story” really did the whole legend justice. The ending was very dark: everything that came after the rumble was morbid, violent and saturated with fear. Laurents didn’t try to wrap it up with some epilogue falsely promising peace or unity. It’s all the more somber for this reason: these issues of racism, violence, misunderstanding and sexual abuse are still all too prevalent today.