A half century after its world premiere at D.C.’s National Theater, “West Side Story” returns to the same venue for another pre-Broadway engagement. This time, it’s the much anticipated bilingual version revised and helmed by original librettist Arthur Laurents to provide maximum relevance for today’s auds. He’s done it just right — a sincere and energetic production that still dazzles with Jerome Robbins’ riveting choreography and the landmark Bernstein-Sondheim score. It could be the perfect tonic for Broadway’s economic blues.
The principal fix from 90-year-old Laurents is the insertion of Spanish text and lyrics for the Puerto Rican Sharks gang and their gals. Doing so adds realism to the plight of the young immigrants and a more balanced perspective to the story. Indeed, Latin Americans have always felt slighted by the musical’s unequal treatment of the rival gangs, especially in the 1961 film.
So the classic tune “I Feel Pretty” is now “Siento Hermosa,” and large chunks of dialogue are in Spanish (without subtitles, an idea nixed during previews). Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) penned the new lyrics under the watchful eye of Stephen Sondheim, while Laurents supervised the book revisions. The concept works beautifully from every perspective, as in the ensemble’s most chilling reprise of a bilingual “Tonight.”
Yet the production’s magic ingredient is its Maria, 21-year-old Argentinean unknown Josefina Scaglione, who plays opposite Matt Cavenaugh’s most convincing Tony. She is an exquisite and entirely natural performer whose clear and powerful soprano voice is simply thrilling. She and Cavenaugh make for a most innocent pair of lovers who soar at every opportunity, especially in their duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.”
Karen Olivo’s spunky Anita hits a home run with “America,” backed by an exceedingly polished ensemble. George Akram’s Bernardo and Cody Green’s Riff are also terrific.
Other key revisions include the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which moves from lighthearted parody to edgier sarcasm underscoring the gang members’ personal hardships. But Laurents wisely avoided tinkering with the quaint ’50s “cool Daddy-O” dialogue so important to the piece.
Under the guidance of choreographer Joey McKneely, the dance numbers are uniformly excellent, including the ensemble “Dance at the Gym,” an especially vivid reminder of the sad demise of flashy choreography from today’s musicals.
Other elements are top notch: James Youmans’ city set features fire escapes and a dramatic bridge that suddenly appears for the rumble scene. Howell Binkley’s versatile lighting captures the quickly changing moods, while costumer David Woolard dresses the gangs in vibrant shades of purple and orange.
One could argue that the assimilation of Spanish-speaking immigrants and the prevalence of Latino street gangs are even more relevant topics today than they were 51 years ago. Certainly the Shakespearian perspective on rival New York City gangs is as timeless in its poignancy as the universal despair over senseless gang violence, still the show’s principal theme.
The first Broadway bound revival of “West Side Story” since 1980, show is scheduled to open March 19 at the Palace Theater.