Right from West Side Story's opening scene, featuring rival gang members from the Sharks and the Jets, Leonard Bernstein's propulsive music and Jerome Robbins'exciting choreography grab the audience's attention and set up the tragic romance that follows. In the current Broadway revival, book writer Arthur Laurents is the director, Joey McKneely has reproduced the choreography, and the Puerto Rican characters speak and sing in both Spanish and English. No matter what language they use, the talented cast sing beautifully and dances vigorously. At age 91, Laurents has delivered a fast-paced, high-energy, 21st-century version of one of the all-time great Broadway musicals.
Unlike Laurents (who also directed the outstanding revival of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone), most of this revival's cast members weren't even born when West Side Story was last seen on Broadway in 1980-let alone when it premiered in 1957. At first glance, it's hard to believe that the boyish teens and twentysomethings in the Jets (the white gang) could be tough enough to rumble with the Sharks (the gang of Puerto Ricans who were moving into the Jets' turf). But the casting of fresh-faced singer-dancer-actors makes the point that bigotry, intolerance, and violence often start at an early age. And even though Manhattan's West Side is now the home of yuppies and tourists, anti-Hispanic sentiment is hardly a thing of the past. (Just last fall a mob of white kids murdered a Latino immigrant in Long Island.)
All this is to say that West Side Story remains relevant and timely. Having the Puerto Rican characters slip in and out of Spanish seems quite natural. The use of Spanish increases in the second act, when "I Feel Pretty" becomes "Siento Hermosa" and "A Boy Like That" becomes "Un Hombre Asi." By that point we've become accustomed to hearing them speak Spanish, so it isn't jarring. Lin-Manuel Miranda (author and star of In the Heights) translated Stephen Sondheim'slyrics, and the original lyrics are provided in the program. It's a smarter solution than doing the two songs in both languages.
It's also smart to cast only Latinos in the Puerto Rican roles. In the original production Carol Lawrence played Maria, and in the film Natalie Wood got the part (though Marni Nixon did the singing). Now the role belongs to Josefina Scaglione, a 21-year-old beauty from Argentina making her Broadway debut. She's a real discovery. Not only does she have a lovely voice, but her acting is unaffected and quite moving at the end.
As just about everyone knows, Maria falls in love with Tony (Matt Cavenaugh), who tries to leave the Jets but gets caught up in the rumble. Cavenaugh has a fine voice, hitting all the high notes in "Something's Coming" and "Maria." He and Scaglione make an attractive couple, and their voices complement each other perfectly in "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart." It takes a while to get used to Cavenaugh in the role, however. His New York accent sounds a lot like the Boston accent he used when he played a Kennedy in Grey Gardens. He doesn't look or sound like the original star, Larry Kert, and his buff body makes him look more like a chorus boy circa 2009 than a guy from a rough neighborhood in 1950s New Yawk. Even if Cavenaugh isn't an ideal fit for the part, his lovely tenor ultimately wins us over.
As Maria's friend Anita, Karen Olivo (In the Heights) also has big shoes to fill since Chita Rivera originated the role on Broadway, Rita Moreno did the movie, and Debbie Allen starred in the 1980 revival. O