West Side Story

at the Chicago Theatre

By Albert Williams

If like most people you’ve only seen West Side Story as a movie, or perhaps in a local amateur or professional production, you’ve never really seen it–that’s abundantly clear from the landmark musical’s don’t-miss touring version, closing its two-week run at the Chicago Theatre this weekend. Robert Wise’s 1961 film was impressive for its use of real-life locations, among them a rundown area in Manhattan subsequently demolished to make room for Lincoln Center. And there have been creditable local productions: Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace’s 1994 revival, for instance, did justice to the vocal music if not the dancing.

But to fully appreciate this American classic you have to see the original Jerome Robbins staging–the fully realized theatrical vision that links dance and gesture, script and score, drama and design. The genius of Robbins’s conception goes far beyond turning Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into a story about the turf war between two 1950s youth gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the European-American Jets. (The details are dated, but the conflict is still with us: the Jets’ declaration of war–“We’re hangin’ a sign / Says ‘Visitors forbidden’– / And we ain’t kiddin’!”–could be the anthem of today’s antiimmigrant movement.) In the enclosed space of a proscenium stage, with Robbins’s direction and choreography carefully reproduced by Alan Johnson, West Side Story is revealed as Gesamtkunstwerk–the Wagnerian ideal of total theater in which music, text, staging, and design unite in a seamless whole.

Leonard Bernstein’s score, the show’s best-known element, still thrills with jagged rhythms drawn from Latin, black, and white influences–mambo, cool jazz, swing, vaudeville, church music. And Stephen Sondheim’s aching, supple lyrics, so fresh and youthful, still float on Bernstein’s lyrical, Mahlerian melodies. But what’s startling here is how intimately matched the music is to Robbins’s movement. Every angry kick and deadly thrust of the fatal rumble is tied to an unpredictable syncopation in the score; every singer’s turn of phrase, whether it’s in a flashy chorus number like “America” or a simple solo like “Maria,” is supported by dancing or gestures as psychologically nuanced as an Antony Tudor ballet. The kids’ body language during the burlesque roughhousing of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets’ lampoon of a society that doesn’t dig them, seethes with rage, suggesting the sardonic anger of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (surely an influence–Bernstein conducted the world premiere of Marc Blitzstein’s Threepenny translation at a 1952 Brandeis University arts festival). The frustrated thrusts of fist and feet in “Cool” follow the ebb and flow of ominous chords and jittery melody–Robbins and Bernstein’s equivalent to James Dean twisting in torment as he cries out “You’re tearing me apart!” in Rebel Without a Cause.

Even more striking is the way Arthur Laurents’s script suits the whole. Dated and preachy in its take on “juvenile delinquents”? Yeah, but so is Rebel; both works probe a social crisis for its myth and poetry. Listen closely to how Laurents, a musical-theater novice when he wrote this (a couple years before he penned the brilliant Gypsy), has sketched in the details of his characters’ class and their ethnic, religious, and familial attitudes. Note how he evokes the story’s huge, timeless themes of sex and death in a casual aside like the Jets’ motto: “Womb to tomb, sperm to worm.” Catch how he foreshadows Maria’s eventual transformation into the Mater Dolorosa, mournful goddess of death and grieving: Getting ready for the neighborhood dance where she’ll meet Tony, the Polish youth who eventually kills her brother, Maria fidgets in her virginal white dress and coyly asks her older friend Anita why she can’t dye the garment red. That laugh line haunts the play’s stunning final image, as Maria–clad now in black and crimson–holds her martyred Tony’s body pieta-style before seizing the Shark gun that killed him and turning on the other gangsters like a raging nemesis.

Irene Sharaff’s boldly colored costumes are part of Robbins’s scheme, of course; so are the sets and lighting, designed here by Campbell Baird and Natasha Katz in obvious homage to Oliver Smith and Jean Rosenthal’s originals. Consider the expressway underpass where the fatal rumble occurs: it looms overhead like a Roman aqueduct, inspired by Bernstein’s observation that New York architecture casts a classical shadow over contemporary events. A towering chain-link fence over which the Sharks vault one by one in a silent and fascinating ritual enhances our awe at their youth and strength, fueling the tragedy of wasted lives. Or take the magnificent “Somewhere” fantasy ballet: a nearly blinding flash of white illuminates the dancers floating and stretching upon the suddenly bare stage; then, as the idyll turns deadly, the lighting darkens until all that’s lit is the tiny, squalid bedroom in which Maria and Tony consummate their passion. The poignant contrast between what could be and what is paves the way for the horror that will come.

There are some flaws in this production. On opening night at least the orchestra was underamplified; and the Chicago Theatre’s sprawling seating and stage areas can’t help but dampen the electricity the show could generate on a smaller stage like the Shubert’s. More fundamentally flawed is Marcy Harriell as Maria: petite and pretty as a porcelain doll, she has a lovely but monodynamic soprano that inhibits the climax’s tragic potential. And Bernie Passeltiner as Doc, the story’s moral conscience, comes off as a stereotyped kvetch. But the rest of the supporting cast is fine, especially Natascia A. Diaz as Anita and Charlie Brumbly as Action, the young hood who heads the Jets when their leader Riff is slain. Best of all is Chicagoan Scott Carollo as a virile, coltish Tony: no musical-comedy pretty boy, this big guy with an oversize schnozz tears into “Maria” with a fiery passion I’ve never heard anyone else approach–all the better to catch us with the tune’s final holy hush.

But West Side Story transcends any individual performers’ strengths or limitations. Almost 40 years after its debut, it remains the product of an enormously talented group whose unique collaboration created a masterpiece. This touring version is a revelation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Joan Marcus.