First-class tour of 'West Side Story' sounds an authentic note
THEATER REVIEW: "West Side Story" ★★★½ at Cadillac Palace
The national touring production of "West Side Story" arrives in Chicago. (July 21, 2011)
The composer, Leonard Bernstein, is dead. And while one hopes the lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, is very much around for more revivals, one doesn't know. "West Side" probably won't be back on Broadway for a long time.
And what a masterpiece! Who could listen to the aching melody of "Somewhere" or "Maria" or "Tonight" and not feel a jolt in the heart?
Had this tour been sent out with some neophyte cast and rumpled backdrops, or with a couple of pre-programmed synthesizers, I think I might have burned down the theater. Well, I would at least have tried to issue a dire warning to ticket-buyers. Happily, that's not the case. This is a first-class tour with a full-strength ensemble and a decent, 20-piece orchestra in the pit. It makes up the best touring version of this show I've seen and, overall, I think the cast works much better than on Broadway in 2009. One thing is for certain: You absolutely believe that Kyle Harris' Tony and Ali Ewoldt's Maria love each other from the burning depths of their young souls. That was not the case in New York.
As Tonys go, Harris tends to the nerdier. He comes off, most assuredly, as a tortured lover, not an effective fighter. But for all its Jets, Sharks, stabbings and rumbling, "West Side Story" is about love. So that works, especially since Harris has a sweet voice that never requires him to stop acting in order to emerge loud and poignant.
Throughout the piece, Harris' Tony seems to be searching for his voice — his identity as part of a duo — and thus the core, gang-versus-girl conflict in this young man is especially clear. Ewoldt, whose sound is crystal clear and vibrato-heavy, takes a while to settle into the sensuality of the role. Maria has to basically live the seven ages of women in 21/2 hours, and the journey spits out plenty of those who have tried. Not Ewoldt. She just gets better and stronger as she goes. And in the final moment, when Maria is suddenly, prematurely, as old as the New York boroughs, she is deeply moving. Laurents changed the staging of the last moments quite a bit, and he made it most powerful.
One of the original conceits of this revival (Laurents wanted to put more focus on the dramatic acting) was that the Sharks would speak Spanish among themselves, as 1950s immigrant kids fromPuerto Rico would have done. (Maria, after all, says she only has been in the U.S. for a month.) I thought that was a terrific idea, and a good way to equalize a show that, in the style of the time, stacked the deck on one side. But like the profanity in "Billy Elliot" (which was similarly realistic of its milieu), the Spanish was progressively dialed back after it met audience resistance in New York and beyond. I wish there were still more there, as the resultant compromise has meant that it's hard to track the logic of when the Sharks do and don't speak in their native tongue. Laurents and Saint should have held out. But then, this is a business as well as an art.
There have been flashier Anitas than Michelle Aravena, who could dial it up a notch even though I had great respect for the honesty of her acting. Joseph Simeone and German Santiago are also strong as, respectively, Riff and Bernardo. And as Lt. Schrank, Christopher Patrick Mullen offers a suitably cynical piece of work.
The physical production is cut back a fair bit — Doc's place appears to have lost its walls. Compromises are everywhere on the road these days. But James Youmans' design retains the essence of its grandeur. And with Joey McKneely guiding them through the incomparable Robbins blueprints, a killer ensemble dances with the palpable pride and commitment of actors who understand that they must be worthy of a sacred American work.
When: Through Aug. 14
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $32-$95 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com