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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 (!) ┬áThis 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.