Why mess with perfection? Alan Johnson’s current touring production of “West Side Story” hews closely to Jerome Robbins’ 1957 original,and the results prove there’s still no more innovative or richer blend of music, dance and story in American musical theater history. A sharp cast of unknowns (no fading pop stars present, thanks) fevers through this smashing revival package, which has done land-office business in San Francisco, a trick likely to repeat at future stops.
One might expect a certain quaintness to have settled by now on Arthur Laurents’ Romeo-and-Juliet-de-la-slum spin, as ’90s gang violence makes all this Jets vs. Sharks business look about as fearsome as a game of touch football. Yet the book is a model of economy, its few dated elements (notably the pseudo-beat lingo) saved by their ironical delivery.
Needless to say, no excuses need be made for Leonard Bernstein’s score or Robbins’ choreography, both of which incorporate Latin, jazz and rock influences to stunning effect. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics remain clever and heartfelt, even if he’s grumbled on occasion since about their alleged naivete (a quality not entirely inapt here). The work’s flaws are so minor (and familiarly debated) as to barely merit noting:”Gee, Officer Krupke” still sticks out like a sore thumb in otherwise somber act two, though it gets a drop-dead workout here; Maria’s preachy final speech spells out what we’ve already surmised.
The production itself hits a few stumbling blocks. More staging emphasis should be brought to bear on Bernardo and Riff’s deaths — the buildups are powerful, the actual moments almost offhand. In S.F.’s cavernous Orpheum Theater , the usual qualms about stage miking applied, and on opening night, Donald Chan’s orchestra at times sounded tinny (not their fault) and ragged (their fault). Both “Jet Song” and “Cool” suffer from being led by the show’s weakest vocalist (Jamie Gustis, who otherwise dances and acts Riff capably). There isn’t much else to quibble about. This very athletic show is superbly danced and, overall, smartly cast.
If there’s a future star in the ranks here, it’s Scott Carollo, whose buffed Tony brings gorgeous pipes and a becoming urgency to everything he does (especially “Something’s Coming”). Petite Marcy Harriell makes a less memorable, but winsome, Maria.
Vincent Zamora is suave and earnest as Bernardo; Natascia A. Diaz’s Anita is saucy and dynamic enough (in “America”) to make you temporarily forget her illustrious prede-cessors. Token adult roles (kindly Doc, bullying cops) are decently filled. But this show belongs to the young ensemble, and it’s terrific.
The late Irene Sharaff’s color-coded costumes glow amid sharp new contributions from Campbell Baird (sets) and Natasha Katz (lighting). Though S.F.’s first-nighters sweated for several long moments while scenery refused to budge, the design package is hothouse-bright and admirably focused.
Audiences raised on the ’61 film version will be stunned by one element it excised: The “Somewhere” ballet, a fantasy in which the doomed lovers imagine their rival factions united in utopian play. That this sequence should still be almost unbearably poignant after nearly 40 years attests to “West Side Story’s” lasting achievement. The new revival delivers these and other perfect music-theater moments at ecstatic full force.