Revivals are difficult affairs. While on one hand, there is a pre-existing covey of die-hard fans, expectations are almost impossibly high. This is particularly true with a masterpiece like West Side Story where you know within the first 45 seconds of the Prologue whether the thing is worth sitting through.
Last night, those first 45 seconds at the Orpheum were nothing short of breathtaking. The first scene reminded me of a particularly dark, dark, version of the Nutcracker that I saw years ago in which individual rats emerged from every nook and cranny of the stage. Individual Jets emerged through shadows, through windows, from off-stage, creating a disquieting feeling as those first iconic horns sounded. Having thrown the audience off balance, the director immediately delivered what they expected: stellar, athletic ballet that seemed more than anything else to be happening off the ground. I don’t know how the dancers seemed to pause and stop midair, but the effect was nothing less than stunning.
The production that opened at the Orpheum last night was informed by Arthur Laurents who directed the 2009 Broadway revival. The script was slightly changed – updated for a grittier feel while still delivering on the original. These changes were thoughtfully chosen. The squeaky-clean Jets upping the ante to zip guns and knives may have worked in 1957, but are laughable in 2010. Laurent’s darker version maintains the audience on edge with the underlying violence, while keeping almost all of the original script intact. Some of the now-hackneyed language is offered up as irony, much to the appreciative hoots from the audience.
Laurents introduced new Spanish text to the songs and dialogue. Initially, this was vaguely annoying, but as it recurred I appreciated how it threw me (and presumably at least some other significant part of the audience) off-balance. Not understanding the words, I listened all the more intently, appreciating the degree of agitation and manic energy that just might not be possible to convey in English.
Other changes such as the buffoon social worker Glad Hand ineffectively calling “Abstinence! Abstinence!” throughout the high school dance scene reduced the audience to peels of laughter at the impossibility of defusing the sexual energy of the production.
Michelle Aravena and German Santiago were in top form as Anita and Bernardo. Both had enormous presence and delivery as the alpha pair of Sharks. At first blush Riff seemed palid, but this point of comparison might not be entirely fair as we could enjoy Anita and Bernardo riffing off each other.
Great efforts were taken with the lighting to emphasize shadows and light. While this was most obvious in the balcony scene where the shadows of Maria and Tony were cast down stage, I found myself watching more and more throughout for other instances of the same. This made for a rich production, as did the blending of color.
West Side Story will be in San Francisco only until November 28. This updated production clearly delivers. Thanks to these changes, West Side Story may be with us for another 50+ years.
West Side Story
Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco
4 out of 5 stars
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Directed by David Saint
Starring Michelle Aravena, German Santiago, Kyle Harris, Joseph J. Simeone and Ali Ewoldt
October 27th through November 28th