Famously beaten out by The Music Man for the 1958 Tony Award, West Side Story was not universally acclaimed when the masterwork first hit Broadway. Leonard Bernstein was still a year away from the zenith of his TV-New York Phil celebrity when he composed the score. Aside from The Time of the Cuckoo, Arthur Laurents hadn’t written anything that lasted two months on the Great White Way — and no musicals. Stephen Sondheim was at the dawn of his stunning career when he wrote the lyrics. Only director-choreographer Jerome Robbins could be described as a theater legend when he climbed aboard the West Side juggernaut.
In Rodgers & Hammerstein parlance, South Pacific, Carousel, and Oklahoma! were considered “as fer as you could go” in bringing realism to the American musical stage. When the West Side earthquake hit town, everyone wasn’t awed or gladdened by the palpable tremors and tremblings. Some were downright offended with the breach of tradition, the hybridization of Broadway, classical, jazz, and Latin musics and the equation of inner city street gangs with the warring families of Romeo and Juliet.
Amazingly, when Laurents spearheaded a revival of his script nearly 52 years later, West Side Story still sparked controversy. Laurents not only directed the version that opened in 2009, he had the nerve to revise his script — and Sondheim’s lyrics! — so that the Puerto Ricans in the Sharks gang occasionally spoke Spanish among themselves.
Sometimes the vaunted sophistication and tolerance of New Yorkers aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. By the time Sue and I saw the revival, five months after its opening, pushback against the revisions had caused Laurents to retrench and restore much of the English he had dropped.
But the whole Spanglish flap had nothing to do with what ailed this new West Side Story. The first problem was the touristy atmosphere of the crass and cavernous Palace Theatre, a stone’s throw from Toys-R-Us on Times Square. One didn’t get the impression that these Raisinettes munchers and walk-ins packed into the orchestra seats were primed for searing drama. Nor did we find that either of the leads was inclined to deliver it. Matt Cavenaugh was a quintessentially bland and generic Broadway hero as Tony, and Josefina Scaglione as Maria didn’t expend enough energy grieving over Tony to make us worry whether she could recover for the next performance.
Between them, no sparks flew.
That’s why it was so gratifying to see the touring version last week at the Belk — where the audience was expecting something special and intense. They certainly got it from the creamy-voiced Ross Lekites, aglow with hopefulness and first love as Tony, bounding up that fire escape to kiss his Maria with the speed and impulsiveness of a true Romeo. And what a Maria! Evy Ortiz was the first I’ve seen live who reminded me that this is music worthy of an operatic voice. Together, Lekites and Ortiz brought back the quicksilver magic West Side Story can have when there’s visible chemistry between the lovers.
Nearly as gratifying, there was more Spanish spoken in Charlotte than on Times Square — seemingly all the Spanish that had been axed from the Broadway revision had been returned. Maybe more. Directing the touring version, David Saint has restored much of the edge and urgency to the Sharks and the Jets that went missing at the Palace. They no longer seem like suburbanites playing at being hoodlums. Best of all, the racial taunting from the Jets, Doc, and Lt. Schrank had enough stinging malice to make me cringe.
In our nicely raked Belk, I found the view less obstructed than my unsatisfying Broadway experience. Nor did I need to block out the people-distractions I encountered at the Palace: learned commentary from sages who totally knew about West Side Story and a tweeting teen who had to confer with her Mom during the final scene. (As a matter of fact, our Belk audience could teach a couple of lessons to the boors I encountered, unwrapping candy or peeping at their smartphones, at recent performances of For the Love of Harlem and Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.)
From a technical standpoint, I’d also give the touring version the nod. Scenic designs on Tryon Street were clearly flimsier and less substantial than on 1564 Broadway, but to combat the acoustic nightmare, Palace performers were dreadfully overmiked, insidiously encouraging patrons to behave as if they were at a movie rather than a live show. The sounds from the stage and the orchestra were far more deftly doctored here. They were also worthier of the effort.