A mere four decades ago, “West Side Story” burst onto Broadway, astounded (and sometimes intimidated) its first audiences with its raw, passionate energy, and eventually made its way into masterpiece status. A mere four decades later and after many revivals of varying quality — highly variable, in this instance — some of that energy remains, but not all.
It remains, above all, in the motoric frenzy of Jerome Robbins’ original conception, which Alan Johnson has attempted to re-create in this latest touring company (currently at Pasadena for a week after an earlier run in Orange County, several cast changes and a recent San Francisco stint, and heading next for Chicago and then Japan). More than mere choreography (although there is plenty of that), Robbins’ innovation was to devise a manner of movement in which dance, physical battle and ordinary walking and running were all expressed in the same constantly stylized, wonderfully fluid body language.
Johnson’s success is a sometime thing. As in any production worth its grand jetes, the opening sequence — rival gangs circling one another, handing off pantomimes of defiance — is a spellbinding preamble. Sooner than later however, the gears of the machine become apparent, and the piece comes to resemble what it truly is, a copy of a dazzling original, efficient but — like a distressing number of the supposedly teenage cast — rather long in the tooth.
The fact is, “West Side Story” has become a period piece long before its time , a curio to be valued for the plush-lined cleverness of Leonard Bernstein’s songs, the handiness of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (hardly a patch on the verbal trickery he would later master) and the resolute old-fashionedness of Arthur Laurents’ “Romeo and Juliet” update. The restored Irene Sharaff costume designs, dating from the days when teenagers of any economic stripe put on neckties to appear in public, does nothing to dispel the faint overlay of dust on the enterprise.
Scott Carollo is a slick, rather bland Tony; his moments of fury are especially hard to believe, and Marcy Harriell’s sweet-voiced stick of a Maria lights no fires. Better than either — the show’s one authentic scene-stealer, in fact — is the Anita of Natascia A. Diaz, daughter of operatic baritone Justino and similarly skillful at creating insidious, larger-than-life characters that hold your attention even when on the sidelines. In an otherwise unexceptionable but lifeless enterprise, she furnishes the spark of life.