BOSTON (CBS) – West Side Story has a special place in my heart. As a hopelessly awkward eighth grader, I somehow got cast as Anita in the school production, mamboing in my bright red dress and turning on the attitude to deliver lines dripping with innuendos that I probably didn’t understand. My first kiss was even on that stage, in front of an audience of 500 – a clumsy rite of passage that only barely parallels the hopelessly fantastical coming of age triumphs and tragedies within the musical.
The 2011 Broadway Across America national tour of West Side Story has taken up residence at Boston’s gorgeous Colonial Theatre for three weeks of June and July. The modern Romeo and Juliet story is beautiful in its naivete: desperately hopeful teenagers thinking that love will overcome the obstacles brought about by nothing more than their place of birth. Even the tough-acting members of the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, seem so very young and innocent (despite being played by 30-something men).
Revisiting this story from an adult perspective, it’s less believable. Tony and Maria fall in love in the course of one slow dance and one operatic duet on a fire escape. The next day, they are planning their wedding. These are not faults of the current production, though, and not necessarily faults at all, as the magic of musical theatre obviously requires a willful suspension of disbelief. The chemistry could have been stronger between the leads in this production, though, and perhaps the disbelief would have been more easily suspended.
Overall, this production is still riveting. The bleak set pieces could be almost any grimy city streets in almost any of the last several decades, lending a timelessness to the love story. The choreography closely mimics the original Jerome Robbins ballet, and this juxtaposition of graceful leaps and gang fights is as striking now as it was years ago.
My main gripe is directed at a change unique to this production: bits of dialogue and even song lyrics have been changed to Spanish. In the dialogue, it actually works fairly well; the actors switch effortlessly between Spanish and English even within sentences, and it sounds convincingly bilingual. In several songs, though, verses seemed to be arbitrarily designated as one language or the other, and this change sounded forced – and almost blasphemous. Dialogue is fluid and open to minute changes, but to change the songs this much in a well-loved musical that has been around for decades just doesn’t feel right. Additionally, this production alters the staging of the last moments, removing the mournful processional of alternating Sharks and Jets. Familiar with the original version, I felt unsatisfied with the change.
West Side Story remains a heartbreaking and important work of art, and this production, though slightly updated, is a welcome addition to Boston’s summer theatre calendar.
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Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.