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West Side Story (Tour) Review, Detroit, MI — Bland but Pretty October 3, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Broadway Musicals, Detroit, musical theater, Theatre.
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For the uninitiated (and there seemed to be a lot of them in the sold out Fisher Theater last night) West Side Story seemed to surprise and cause audible gasps in the young ones as the story played out in its final minutes. For those who know the show (most of the audience) this current Broadway Tour of West Side Story was a pleasant (if bland) evening of musical theater.

The cast is pretty. Very pretty. You can see them here: http://www.broadwaywestsidestory.com/tour-cast.html

And that is part of the problem here — none of the kids in the show look like they are in any imminent danger, nor do they represent the cross-section of real-looking people found in the movie and previous Broadway incarnations. As a result, you mostly want to reach out and pat their handsome heads and give them a soda and tell them to go home. There is little grit in this production, no matter how much finger snapping and grimacing you get from the boys.

The girls fare better, but only come to life in “America” and the “Dance at the Gym” sequences of the show. I won’t mention any of the actors by name, because none of them stand out. They are all good, yet they are all interchangeable. Not one of them had that “spark” that one expects at this musical. Tony and Maria are pleasant and bland. Bernardo is likeable and bland. Anita brings some life to the stage in “America” but otherwise is pretty and bland.

The sets and lighting are sparse and colorful (!)  This isn’t the menacing and “horrific” musical first seen in 1957 with Oliver Smith’s Tony-winning sets. This isn’t the real New York Upper West Side used for the film. This is colorful, sparse, set design splashed with oranges and reds and deep blues that make you think, hmm, what a pretty color, not “hmm, this is dark, what’s going to happen next?”

Arthur Laurents directs (at age 91) in a production that only partially succeeds in mixing Spanish with English. I understand the Spanish has been toned down from the Broadway production, but not having seen it in New York last year, I can not tell you how much. There still seemed to be too much of it, particularly in Act Two. Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) did the translations, with help from his father for idioms and color.

Jerome Robbins choreography is lovingly recreated here by Joey McKneely (who has directed multiple productions of the show himself), but it never catches fire. Except for the aforementioned girls-driven “America”, there really isn’t a moment that you stop and realize what ground-breaking choreography this was in 1957. Instead, you nod your head pleasantly in the remembered steps that you’ve learned to copy in community or college productions of West Side Story that you yourself have been a cast member of. And more shockingly, for those of us who had the chance to see Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in New York, the superior dancers in that production.

There is nothing wrong with this production of West Side Story. There is also nothing to differentiate it from any of the other productions of it that you might have seen. The emotion is intrinsic to the piece, and the performers in this particular production do little to stamp any personality on their interpretations. Perhaps that is a function of the direction. Perhaps it’s the function of being too pretty for the parts. And perhaps, it’s because shows like “Rent”, “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot” have forever changed how we look at youth on stage in a more realistic manner.

The show received a standing ovation, so perhaps I am in the minority on this one — but I heard many comments on the way out of the theater along the lines of “I liked the original better”. I wasn’t around to see that one live on stage, but I have a feeling they were right.


1. kathi - October 13, 2010

great review – and I totally agree…just saw the show last night and I was disappointed. I love this musical but was unmoved by the production.

2. Dan from BH - October 15, 2010

Saw the show last night, as well. The production gives a serviceable rendition of the classic musical, yet never sizzles with the electricity this show can offer. And, I agree that the Spanish language incorporated into the scenes and songs, while perhaps more realistic, got in the way of the story. Lastly, this production clearly fails to bring the punch to the heart in its final scene that is the entire show’s climax. It clearly is edited to severely, and doesn’t offer the actors space to hit the necessary emotional beats to support the pure tragic resolution. Rent the movie!

3. Rita - November 11, 2010

Are you really comparing this to the original? Seriously? This is a sub par review and I find the discussion of the Jets as bland particularly confounding. Action, played by Drew Foster, delivered one of the best performances I have seen on any stage, Broadway of otherwise. This production is a national tour of a revival, it is not trying to reinvent the wheel. It is cast quite well, considering the casting travesties that I have witnessed in other national tours. The actors look young because many of them are. I saw the original in New York and this one was much for emotionally resonant. Also, concluding that Rent, Spring Awakening, and American Idiot all portray youths in a more realistic manner than West Side Story is completely off point. If you have seen these productions, first of all they are all very different from one another, especially Rent; secondly, they were written decades after West Side; and lastly, they don’t paint realistic portraits of young people. I do agree with you on this: the original must have been better. But are we seriously supposed to compare a touring production in 2010 to the original? The original was, arguably, one of the most important productions in theatre history. I do question wether the talent in the original was better than the talent in the revival. Do you know the name of the woman who played Maria in the original Broadway version of this show? I would be surprised if she had a clearer soprano than Ali Ewoldt, (who has appeared on Broadway). As for the dancing, it was definitely better than community college. I’m not sure what you were expecting and it seems that you have written quite an uninformed review.

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