"Prologue" and "Siento Cansado", or The First 2 of StinkyLulu's 5 Stinky Thoughts on West Side Story (2009)

This post is the first in what appears to be emerging as a mini-treatise regarding the current Broadway production of West Side Story at The Palace Theatre in New York City. What I had hoped would be a quick overview of my reactions to the production soon morphed into something more substantial -- or, if not substantial, then too BIG for a single post. So, I've elected to spread my "5 Stinky Thoughts on West Side Story (2009)" over the next several days...

PROLOGUE: When You're a Fan...
For reasons that are not at all rational, I often feel that West Side Story, in all its variants, is "mine." The musical has occupied its own corner of obsession in my mind since I first screened it one summer afternoon when I was not quite 12 and visiting my grandmother's house (it was the afternoon movie). Moreover, I've spent much of the last decade researching both the original stage musical and its Oscar-winning film version, as well as the projects myriad productions, adaptations and revivals in the half-century since. My primary scholarly interest in West Side Story can be discerned from the working title of my work on it: "How the Sharks Became Puerto Rican." (In this work, I explicate how the almost accidental choice to make the rival gang Latino has become one of the musical's most significant cultural legacies.) Along the way, I've accumulated a pile of factoids, which I've done my best to cross check and verify, and which I've strung and restrung into various iterations of my understanding of how West Side Story came -- and continues to come -- into being. So, when it was announced that the musical's librettist Arthur Laurents would be directing a newly bilingual Broadway revival of the show, I knew it was necessary that I see the "revisal" of this show. Which I did, last week, in one of its final preview performances. What follows include some of my preliminary thoughts on the production, informed of course by my ongoing interest in the musical's peculiar formal, social and racial history.

Thought #1: Siento Cansado.
As the evening approached, everyone asked: are you excited? And with each query, I was somewhat surprised to notice that I wasn't. Perhaps I was tempering my expectations? Perhaps I was concerned by my early, underwhelming glimpses of the production? (Exhibit A) At the same time, I felt mostly very glad to finally have the opportunity to see this show in its Broadway habitat. (West Side Story has been on Broadway only twice before: for the several years of its original run in the late 1950s and for the several months of its first revival in the 1980s. I had also missed the restaging of most of the musical numbers as part of the 1989 anthology musical, Jerome Robbins' Broadway.) Only as curtain time approached, did I really begin to become giddy. Yet, once the show began, with the electrifying genius of "Prologue," I noted the aspect of the production that would come to define my experience of the evening: everything seemed oddly muffled. I first noticed this physically -- kinesthetically -- as the physical confrontations between The Jets and The Sharks seemed almost tamped down, squeezed and compressed. At first I thought it might have been because of the relatively small stage, that there wasn't a lot of room for the dancers to move but -- as more songs and scenes followed this opening dance -- I realized there was a consistency to the correction. At every turn, I noted the curious lack of a final punch. Extensions seemed oddly curtailed. Arms seemed rarely to extend to their full reach. Notes were swallowed. Lines tossed off. Scenic transitions lagged. Everything felt a little muffled. And I could almost always hear everyone (though, notably, I struggled to make sense of the unscripted incidental dialogue throughout the piece, whether they were spoken in Spanish or not.) But muffled, rather, in an emotional sense. My appreciation of this piece has long derived from its incredible sense of emotional immediacy. But, here, there was a kind of distance, a manner of remove that I found odd, even stultifying. The charismatic Karen Olivo (as Anita) felt glib, her dance work in both "Dance at the Gym" and "America" seeming a little wan and unrealized, like she was "marking" rather than performing each number. The exuberant athleticism of Cody Green (as Riff) felt oddly restrained, his capacity for great height, for great reach, seemingly held back. Matt Cavenaugh (as Tony) sang gloriously but almost always at a different tempo than the orchestra and Josephine Scaglione (as Maria) glowed, princess-like, in her own little bubble.
All told, I felt the production to be competent but curiously fuzzy, lacking an essentially energizing clarity and precision which ended up blunting the emotional intensity of the entire piece.

Come back on Monday for the 2nd installment of
StinkyLulu's 5 Stinky Thoughts on West Side Story (2009):
"How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?"


augie said...

Great for "West Side Story" , but what about our poor Ann Blyth form last December ????????? Come on Stinky lulu !!!!!!!!!

Middento said...

Heh, when we meet up again sometime, remind me to tell you about my experience of being in a production of WSS at Dartmouth, which was both educational and probably turned me back toward the Latino identity that I was avoiding. (Does it say everything if I tell you that I played Glad-Hand? Sigh.)