The authorised fiftieth anniversary production of West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells, embarking on a national tour in September, is beautiful to behold and full of colour and vivacity. It’s just a bit anodyne, and nobody in the cast really sounds or looks like a troubled teenager in a deprived area on the Upper West Side of New York either then or now.
I’ve always assumed West Side Story to be the greatest American musical, but now I’m not so sure. The music of Leonard Bernstein is the outstanding element, but there’s not enough of it. The book of Arthur Laurents is fine but not as good as his book for Gypsy. The lyrics of Stephen Sondheim proclaim genius but also have their soppy side. The choreography of Jerome Robbins, dutifully reproduced by Joey McKneely, is marvellous, but lacking in street credibility and new moves; it’s woefully dated.
When gang warfare is suspended in the all white ballet of “Somewhere, There’s A Place For Us,” McKneely’s staging reaches its apogee, a fairytale land of living together in perfect harmony, teaching the world to sing, as in the seventies pop song. In contrast, the juvenile delinquency song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” is delivered like some tame dance school number, sans grit, sans teeth, sans life, sans everything. And it’s far too inaudible.
The big gaps in the scoring are not here filled in with attentive acting or real threat and danger. The bunch of Polish American Jets dance like synchronized swimmers, creating tableaux, not rumbles, while the Puerto Rican Sharks and their colour-coded girls – lots of red taffeta and hoity-toity hairstyles – flounce around like a turn in a Paris night club.
A definitive revival of this piece is long overdue. In the mean time, the band under the musical direction of Donald Chan is better than average, but not much, and the Maria of Sofia Escobar sounds the most touching and persuasive dramatic points of the evening. Ryan Silverman is a fairly butch Tony – well, fairly butch compared to the rest of his gang – and Marco Santiago a devilishly doomed Bernardo.
My overriding sense of this as a cabaret version of West Side Story was sealed by Lana Gordon’s Anita whipping up a minor storm with “America” while the number is best conveyed in the clinically executed ensemble that accompanies her. The show is professionally honoured in the performance, but not transformed into the explosive celebration we expected.