Review: Broadway's 'West Side Story' Offers Nada Nuevo

After watching Karen Olivo take home a Tony for her role in the Broadway revival of West Side Story, and hearing all of the buzz surroudning the play, I decided I had to check it out. After watching the show, which opened in March and can currently be seen at NYC's Palace Theatre, I was left wondering why 91-year-old American playwright and director Arthur Laurents revived this play if nothing new was going to come of it.

Laurents, who also wrote the book version of West Side Story, fails to add anything fresh to this Broadway revival, which is in many ways (minus the good ones) a carbon copy of the 1961 film adaptation, directed by Jerome Robbins (the movie that earned Puerto Rican legend Rita Moreno an Oscar for the now iconic role of Anita). While preparing to make the new West Side Story, Laurents confessed that “the musical and cultural conventions of 1957 made it next to impossible for the characters to have authenticity.” But that statement is baffling given that this new version is in no way more enlightened than past stage and film productions of the play. In fact, it feels stale, old, repressed, staunchly conservative and traditional. The word “spic," for instance, is uttered so many times (many more times than in the movie version) that it almost made my head spin. And the characters are in no way more “authentic” than they were in the 1957 Broadway production, nor are they more layered or well developed than the characters in the 1961 film.

In fact, some of the most important characters of West Side Story, like gang member Bernardo (a miscast George Akram) and his feisty girlfriend Anita (Olivo) are less developed than they have ever been on stage or screen. So scarce are Bernardo’s lines in this play that he almost becomes a member of the ensemble. And where Rita Moreno’s Anita was a confident, gutsy woman not to be messed with, Karen Olivo’s Anita comes off as an insecure, frightened little girl—which is such a disappointing change given that today there are so many confident, brave Latinas in America. Olivo plays Anita as if she’s ashamed to be who she is, and she’s certainly more toned down and less assertive than ever.

That’s not to say that Olivo isn’t great as Anita—she is. The long-legged beautiful star, who previously played Vanessa in Broadway's In the Heights, is an incredibly talented dancer and singer, and she deserves the Tony she won for the role. But in all truth, the conviction that Moreno gave Anita was what I always loved about the character. And that conviction—that self-worth—is missing here. Still, there’s a rape scene in this production—where Anita goes to give Tony a message from Maria—that will knock your socks off, and the power of the scene is entirely to Olivo’s credit. She pulls off devastated, frightened and mad-as-hell all at once. It’s hard to believe she manages to achieve that level of emotion night after night.

The rest of the performances in the show are less impressive than Olivo’s. Matt Cavenaugh, with his fine voice, doesn’t embarrass himself as the loveable hero Tony, but he’s not too impressive either. Argentinean import Josefina Scaglione, who plays Maria (the Natalie Wood role in the film), wasn’t at the performance that I saw, but her understudy Haley Carlucci (who I will forever call the Spanish butcher) was. Her Español was, ahem, not so good. For instance, her pronounciation of the word suficiente (sufy-i-si-entay) didn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and anytime she had to speak in Spanish, I covered my o-ray-has (orejas). But the butcher’s Español aside, she did a nice job of capturing Maria's innocence and drunken optimism.

Meanwhile, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who collaborated with West Side Story composer Stephen Sondheim to make the show’s music bilingual, does a decent job of translating the music, but it's not perfect. His “Me Siento Hermosa” (I Feel Pretty) offers nothing original, however, his translation of “A Boy Like That” (Un Hombre Asi) brings down the house, especially when a heartbroken and devastated Anita tells Maria: “Ese ladron, mato a tu hermano. Olvida ese Americano. Y ese ladron, ese carbon, le das tu amor? Por favor, Maria, por favor!” The translation fills the scene with emotion that the English language could never hope to convey.

And like all versions of West Side Story, the ending has the same result: Tony goes to see Maria, but instead finds the new head Shark holding a gun pointed at him. He doesn’t dodge the bullet—he gets shot and dies. But I sure dodged one, because the show was over—at last.