REVIEW: West Side Story (The Civic)

Review by James Wenley

[West Side for Life]

A whistle. The Jets gang lounge around like the they own the city. A beat. One starts clicking. The others join in. They get together and strut. On the lighter notes their arms and legs slide out for a balletic flourish. They stop in their tracks when members of the Sharks arrive. Whites versus Puerto Ricans in 1950s New York. The dance continues, each group trying to out-man the other. You wish these gawky boys could get over their turf war and bigotry and instead team up to form a massive contemporary ballet troupe.

It’s West Side Story – and yes, it’s exactly as you know it. This production uses much of Jerome Robbins’ iconic original 1957 Broadway choreography, much of which will also be familiar from the 1961 film (the gorgeous lighting design often recalls the film’s cinematography too, such as the dollops of red as the youth arrive for the dance at the gym). With a mostly American cast, this version comes circuitously to us after a number of international stops via director Joey McNeely’s 2008 West End Revival (rather than, it would seem, the 2009 Broadway revival directed by book-writer Arthur Laurents himself, which enlisted Lin-Manuel Miranda to translate some of the Sharks’ lyrics into Spanish).

What we get is a classic canonical Musical which is, at times, like the high-rise scaffolding used for the set, a little creaky. Take the old-fashioned convention of the Act Two ballet, in which the cast emerge costumed in white and earnestly dance to ‘Somewhere’: “There’s a place for us, Somewhere a place for us…”

And yet, in many ways, West Side Story stands firmly apart from what came before it, and what came after it. The show was greeted with puzzlement by some critics and was beaten by The Music Man for Best Musical at the Tony Awards. Now the show is seen as one of the greats. But watching it on the Civic stage, that status is secondary to the immediacy and urgency with which it bursts out at us. It’s so different from the current meta and self-aware crop of modern musicals. It’s the shock of the old made new again.

West Side registers with so many of the current conversations. In one exchange within the show, a Jet grumbles that it’s because of the Puerto Ricans that his old man went bust. Your old man would have gone bust anyway, another counters. As our politicians one-up their immigration policies as a solution for all sorts of social and economic strains in the hunt for our votes and, its one that resonates rather loudly locally. But of course the other elephant in our consciousness is contemporary America’s Divided States.

West Side’s very fabric weaves idealism with an ugly cynicism. The star-crossed Tony and Maria fall in love at the same time that the tensions between their ‘families’ heat up and a war council takes place to decide the manner of the showdown, and what weapons that will be used. Tony and Maria’s romantic purity is undermined by racial hate and violence. A group rape, implied in the film, is shown with brutal visibility here. West Side exposes the dark heart of America while still reinvesting in the promise of the American dream. It is the Puerto Rican women who get to sing about ‘America’ and all its messy contradictions and inequalities, and finish with an “Ole!”.

These resonances are one of the reasons West Side remains such a potent force. Another might be a desire to believe in the ardent feelings of the Romeo and Juliet figures – if only we could love with half of the passion as these two, and sing about it so beautifully as well.  What makes this all possible is the elegant construction of this work. The active collaboration between Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and a young Stephen Sondheim as co-lyricist was unusual for its time. With the added voice of the auteur Robbins (who apparently the writers were not speaking to by opening night), resulted in the one of the most tightly constructed musicals.

Here’s an illustration: The second song in a musical is usually a ‘I want song’ sung by the protagonist: a mission statement that will drive them on for the rest of the narrative (look for them and you’ll find them everywhere). But Tony doesn’t know what he wants, only that he’s ready and open for a change. The song ends with the notion that it might happen soon, “maybe tonight”. Maria’s ready for something new too. That night at a dance, they catch each other’s eyes from across the room. The score changes into a sweet, tentative melody as they test each other out in a tentative partner dance, still unable to take their eyes off each other. As they are parted by their crews, he overhears her name. Now he has a name for his new love, and we now have a name for the sweet tune that we heard just before. The melody reoccurs as Tony plays with how many ways he can say ‘Maria’ (has there ever been a more beautiful song about love at first sight?). Tony then arrives underneath her balcony like a creepy stalker love-sick puppy dog. What is the name of their duet declaring their undying passion for each other? Why, ‘Tonight’, of course.

I’ve talked a lot about the Musical so far, and little about the production, but it a testament to the cast and production team that all these elements of the work have been showcased so vividly. Showing none of the wear or corner-cutting of long haul touring productions, this West Side Story is delivered with excellence.

Kevin Hack as Tony and Jenna Burns as Maria are exquisite performers, while Keely Beirne’s Anita is a force of her own. The ensemble dance sequences are superb, allowing us to admire their agility and articulation of Robbins definitive movement.

We also have the pleasure to be in the hands of maestro Donald Chan, who has been the musical director of over 3000 performances of West Side. Under his guidance, the orchestra do full justice to Bernstein’s rich and supple score, which managed to bottle the tumultuous hormones of these kids in the big city going nowhere.

Playing at The Civic for only one more week, this is a production worthy of West Side Story’s status as the pinnacle of the art-form of the American musical. But more than that – its fresh, vibrant, and its plea for inclusivity is powerfully delivered. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, somehow, some day, somewhere, the West Side Story was no longer so relevant?

West Side Story plays at The Civic until 2 July. Details see Auckland Live

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Michael Hooper

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