Something magical happens halfway through the first act in the exciting revival of the landmark West Side Story at New York’s legendary Palace Theatre. A dynamic Natalie Cortez, who recently replaced the injured, Tony Award-winning Karen Olivo as Anita, leads a group of girls in the thrilling “America” number, in which Leonard Bernstein’s jazz and Latin American rhythms and Stephen Sondheim’s apt lyrics unite in manic Hispanic dispute concerning the arguable inducements of San Juan. As Anita energetically twirls her skirt and kicks a shapely leg into orbit, she brilliantly, scornfully abolishes all nostalgia for the old Puerto Rican capital. “I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan,” one homesick girl sings. “If there’s a road you can drive on,” Anita sardonically replies.
The latest version of the popular musical was conceived and directed by Arthur Laurents, now 92, who is also responsible for the show’s libretto. It was his decision to have those actors who play Puerto Rican characters occasionally speak and sing in Spanish, which provides the musical with a touch of realism. But it is the stimulating, spinning choreography of the late Jerome Robbins that remains breathtaking and gives the production its overall design. And speaking of design, the scenery by James Youmans (effectively lit by Howell Binkley) is impressive and functional and the costumes created by David C. Woolard are suitably flashy. What comes immediately to mind concerning the setting is a garden of roses sculptured out of colored paper at the dance in the gym, as well as the huge, daunting fence that frames the action during “The Rumble,” which leads to a fatal knifing at the conclusion of the first act.
The original libretto was supposed to depict the problems that beset an American Jewish boy on New York’s east side who falls in love with a Catholic girl. But the creative team waited too long to begin the project and that religious mix was no longer a significant factor in New York’s east side. Eventually, however, there were newspaper headlines about problems arising between Puerto Rican gangs and “native boys” on the westside of the city. That motivated Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) to finally begin to collaborate on the project. The musical, which opened in September of 1957 and ran at the Winter Garden Theatre for 734 performances, was an enormous success. And a film version won the Academy Award for the best motion-picture of 1961.
Almost everyone these days is familiar with the libretto, which was very loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tony (Matthew Hydzik) tells Riff (John Arthur Green), his best friend, that something has changed, that, in fact, “something great is coming! /Who knows?/It’s only just out of reach down the block, on a beach.../Maybe tonight....” Of course, that night his fantasy becomes a reality. And when Tony dances with Maria (Sarah Amengual), a Puerto Rican, he knows he has found his Juliet. However, Maria’s brother, Bernardo (George Akram), the captain of the Sharks, is antagonistic and revenge becomes an option. The result is the aforementioned tragic rumble in the schoolyard under the highway.
Because the show, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is an example of musical tragedy, some comic relief is customary. The musical’s creators oblige with “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a number in which the “native boys” of the so-called Jets try to lessen the emotional tension. One pretends to be a police officer and the others pull out the stops by prancing, clowning and singing: “We ain’t no delinquents,/We’re misunderstood,/Deep down inside us there is good!”
That farcical interlude, however, serves to mitigate the tension only for the moment. And so, West Side Story, which ends tragically, remains a unique musical that eagerly entertains as it admonishes about the destructiveness of bigotry and hate.