The dancing is the lone reason to leap for joy in London’s new “West Side Story,” whose footwork couldn’t be a more eloquent testimony to the legacy of the late Jerome Robbins. As for the rest of the production? With a lesser show, one would simply draw a polite veil over a company that might impress the populace from suburban East Grinstead but comes across as depressingly inauthentic to anyone who’s ever walked Manhattan’s West Side.
Whether a local English public will care is debatable, especially once the Sharks and the Jets start soaring across the Prince Edward stage. But in the wake of Trevor Nunn’s quietly radical National Theater “Oklahoma!,” it may be time for a similar shakeup of a no less seminal achievement.
The ensemble energy can be dazzling as the cast cuts through the air, but there’s little truth to the playing of a book that, to be honest, itself sometimes seems far more antique than its centuries-old Shakespearean source. (Sample exchange: “You make this world lousy.” “That’s the way we found it.”)
Indeed, it’s to Robbins’ enduring credit that his choreography seems as eternally fresh as Arthur Laurents’ book now looks dated, with its rather sweetly anodyne view of gang warfare itself exposed by lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s genially satiric pop-psychology in “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
Forty-one years ago, “West Side Story” no doubt defined a new era of edgy musical cool, but on this evidence it really only retains any sense of danger when the cast gives itself over to a number like “Cool.”
That first act showpiece for Riff (Edward Baker-Duly) and the Jets remains an electrifying template of the American musical theater, and it’s every bit as sinuous, hip and jazzy as Leonard Bernstein’s at once idiomatic and ageless score, the music poised on the defining cusp between Gershwin and the Sondheim career that, in 1957, was still to come.
Chunkier than most dancers, Baker-Duly owns the stage every time he flicks his way across it, and it’s only a shame (though he’s hardly alone on this account) that the evening requires him to open his mouth.
Still, Riff’s early demise deprives director-choreographer Alan Johnson’s physically rather scrappy revival — the lighting cues, for instance, looked barely worked out — of a principal source of tension, especially given a Bernardo from Graham MacDuff who sounds as if he’d be better off in the English civil service. (Listen to his phrasing of an ostensibly simple question like, “On what terms?”) Again, one wishes the show had been cast with the same joyous abandon that marked “Oklahoma!” — there’s no revelation here on the order of that production’s Jud Fry, Shuler Hensley — instead of serving the demands of a road tour that gives the West End stand a faintly stale air.
The principals try hard to no avail. As Tony, David Habbin is gratefully unsynthetic, so it’s a shame that he lacks the head voice (not to mention the charisma) to clinch both “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.” Katie Knight-Adams, as Maria, is both game and unimpressive, with an odd tendency to freeze up emotionally just when her songs take wing. Most disappointing is Anna-Jane Casey in the hitherto foolproof role of Anita, who here sounds as if she’s mocking her own wayward vowels. Smaller assignments are better served — Kevin Quarmby’s sour Lt. Schrank and Jennifer Ashton’s surprisingly resonant Anybodys, among them.
In any case, it may be the particular blessing as well as the curse of “West Side Story” to be greater than any individual interpreters; since the initial run, this show has rarely been sold on the strength of its performers (Debbie Allen’s spitfire Broadway turn notwithstanding). And as the dreamed-for harmony of the second-act ballet accompaniment to “Somewhere” collapses into chaos and frenzy, one sees why, inasmuch as “West Side Story” bears the timeless imprint of an offstage master, Robbins, whose artistic bequest in every way lives on.