Review: West Side Story

I’m taking a quick break from working on Chapter IV of my dissertation to write a snarky, scathing review of West Side Story, currently on its pre-Broadway engagement tour here in DC. I saw the show last night with my good buddy Justin (a fellow improviser whom I not-so-secretly want to be when I grow up).

Now, just as a disclaimer: In any given year, I typically see a lot of performances — improv shows, live music, plays, musicals. You name it, I go see it. And given that I’ve been on the other side of the stage (i.e., on it) many, many times, I consider myself quite gracious and often give performers the benefit of the doubt. And because I’m also interested in producing and directing shows, I usually find one or two things I like about each performance that I see.

But last night’s show was bad.

How bad, you ask? In the entire show, there were only two highlights for me.

The first was Karen Olivo’s Anita. Olivo, who originated the role of Vanessa in the Tony-Award winning In the Heights on Broadway, was head and shoulders above the entire cast. Her triple-threat performance was powerful and compelling. She portrayed Anita as a fiery and passionate yet genuinely empathic human being. She was the much-needed spark that the entire production seemed to sorely lack. I actually felt bad for the Broadway veteran, who was surrounded by an unbelievably amateurish cast that seemed right out of a high school production of Once Upon A Mattress. Or the touring cast of Rent. <Shudder>

The other highlight was a set piece.

Yeah.

That was pretty much it.

Tony (Matt Cavenaugh) was absolutely miscast, and Maria (played by the Argentine-born Josefina Scaglione) looked like she was 12. Cavenaugh lacked any kind of passion for the role; he played Tony more like a mildly operatic Curly from Oklahoma. Scaglione, while competent in the role, was out of place in the cast as an opera-trained performer. Her Maria was not quite believable as a virginal, romantic optimist. And there was absolutely no chemistry between the two leads. The whole thing played like a creepy musical version of Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator.”

I can buy dance-fighting gangs. Honestly, I can, even when the entire gang looks like it came from the performance of The Nutcracker next door. But when the central figures in the story — Tony and Maria — are the least compelling thing about the production, something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original 1957 production’s book, directs this revival. And you can tell that he’s, uh, a little older. (Laurents was born in 1918.)  Now don’t get me wrong; I have the utmost respect for this theater legend. And I am by no means ageist. But a revival is only as successful as its ability to connect with new audiences. When we’ve seen innovations on stage and screen since the original’s debut on Broadway, this entire production seems enormously dated. Even Step Up and Step Up 2 seemed to pull off the age-old Romeo and Juliet story more successfully.

Because we’re both performance geeks, Justin and I deconstructed the show afterwards. At one point, we decided that we were both righteously indignant: After working in the improv medium for so long, we now expect so much more from scripted theater. That’s precisely because (1) it’s scripted and (2) performers have had time to rehearse. Call it the elitist leanings of an improviser, but when you know how it feels not to have a net, you expect those who do have one to take even more creative risks to deliver a bigger payoff.

If you know me, you know that it doesn’t take much for me to enjoy any kind of  performance. And my love for the performing arts overshadows most of the flubs I see from time to time. But every once in a while, I sit back and watch a show and think to myself, “WTF?”

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