Rarely has an audience leapt to its feet quicker than theatergoers did for the 50th anniversary European tour of “West Side Story.” Casting this quintessential American tuner, you need a triple-threat troupe who can sing Leonard Bernstein’s often-dissonant score and put across Stephen Sondheim’s acerbic lyrics while convincingly playing 1950s teenagers — not to mention dance like McKechnies and Baryshnikovs. Helmer Joey McKneely lucks out in the last department — the level of dancing is consistently dazzling. And thanks to his painstaking recreation of Jerome Robbins’ original chorography, the show explodes with passion and power.
From the carefree poetry of the opening boys’ ensemble, to the raucous dances at the gym, to the luscious ballet blanc, this production reps the best hoofing — modern, ballet, jazz, or otherwise — to hit dance-starved Vienna in several years.
At 50, “West Side Story” still seems new and dangerous, a fact which likely poisoned its chances at the 1958 Tony Awards (nabbing trophies only for Robbins’ choreography and Oliver Smith’s sets). Filled with the hip lingo of the Beat Generation, Arthur Laurents’ book, however, needs special treatment to keep it from sounding dated, which is one area where this revival sags.
The largely North American cast perhaps should have been given a primer in the punk patois of the long-gone era; their readings of terms like “cool” and “daddy-o” come off stilted. At times, it sounds like Henry Higgins served as dialogue coach.
The words are clearly but blandly enunciated, devoid of New York accents. Even the pan-European cast in Francesca Zambello’s 2003 production at Austria’s Bregenz Festival managed to work “distoibed” into “Gee, Officer Krupke,” here sung with diction that would do the Mormon Tabernacle Choir proud.
The Puerto Ricans switched their accents on and off, and, when their accents were on, the projected German subtitles came in handy.
Since the production will play Austria, France, Switzerland and Germany through the end of February, the accents may reflect McKneely’s conscious decision to make the book and lyrics more accessible to non-native-English-speaking audiences, but the choice costs the presentation some pizzazz.
Gorgeous Davinia Rodriguez, a diminutive Maria, superbly conveys the character’s progression from girl to woman, scaling back her sweet operatic soprano to fit the music. David Curry’s Tony veers in the opposite direction; you almost expect him to launch into “Pagliacci.” But his overall blandness makes him disappear, especially against Spencer Howard’s powerhouse Riff.
Lana Gordon’s pop-style belt is at odds with the other voices, but she makes an appropriately fiery, ultimately gut-wrenching Anita. John Arthur Greene, Christian Patterson, and Anna J. Stevens make large contributions in smaller roles.
Designer Paul Gallis’ sliding maze of fire escapes, accented by sepia-tinted projections of the Upper West Side before ground was broken for Lincoln Center is almost an homage to Smith’s original designs, atmospherically lit by Peter Halbsgut.
While the sets are strictly 1950s, Renate Schmitzer’s flagrantly contemporary, often ugly costumes are the productions’ biggest liability. Schmitzer’s got so many cargo pants and satin baseball jackets going on, it looks like she raided a Gap warehouse. Sporting muscle T’s, the wholesome Jets look like they’re prepping for boys’ night out in Chelsea rather than a rumble under the highway.
But the draw is the magic chemistry of Robbins, Sondheim, and Bernstein, their work looking and sounding as fresh as it did 50 years ago.