Review: 'West Side Story' at Clowes Hall

June 5, 2013
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The production of “West Side Story” that lumbered into Clowes Hall on June 4 (and runs through June 9) to close out the 2013/2014 Broadway series has two things going for it.

The first is a warm performance by Maryjoanna Grisso, who is able to capture star-crossed lover Maria’s innocence, her budding sexuality and, most interestingly, her fear. Hers is a Maria who knows that—as good as it feels and as complete as it makes her—her love for Tony is opening the door to a big pile of trouble.

The second asset is the decision to convert some of the Shark dialogue and song lyrics into Spanish. Rather than being a move toward political correctness, the choice (made for the Broadway revival that this non-Equity tour is based on) provides balance between the two gangs, accentuates the gulf between the two cultures, and should create a greater sense of authenticity.

Should.

The effect of these changes—and of Grisso’s performance—are mitigated by an overall sloppiness that permeates the production. It’s got a Tony who rushes his lines so badly that I had an easier time understanding Bernardo’s Spanish (a language I don’t speak); a personality-free Riff who has difficulty holding notes; Sharks who are indistinguishable from Jets; and an Anita whose performance seems grafted together from the disconnected performances of other Anitas.

And good luck making any sense of the second-act ballet, in which tomboy wannabe-gang-member Anybodys seems to become part of the Maria/Tony family, and “Somewhere” is sung by a staring-at-the-audience Shark girl. (To confuse matters further, a look at a review from an early stop on the tour indicates that the song was sung there by Anybodys. And the Broadway revival had it sung by a boy soprano. Are they drawing straws before the show? Will Lt. Schrank get a turn?)

The music is played as well as can be expected from an 11-piece orchestra. The dance moves are executed efficiently but rarely infused with the passion that would make us care. In short, this is the “West Side Story” you might find at a decent college or summer stock company. It’s not what we should expect from a series that uses the word “Broadway” in its title.

Your thoughts?  

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  • I agree ...
    My husband and I saw this performance Tuesday night. I had a difficult time following the lines in Spanish and the performance of "Somewhere" mystified me. Was it a social comment on a place where everyone is accepted? A means to give this character more time on stage? I wasn't completely disappointed but it wasn't as good as other Broadway Across America performances that I have attended.
  • Scabs onstage
    I think they should stop putting non-Eq tours in the Broadway series and charging full price. You get what you pay for usually, but not at the Murat and Clowes, apparently.
  • Not an improvement
    I was very disappointed in the touring production of West Side Story. But where to begin on what was wrong? First, the show amped up the level of violence but kept the language 50s bubble gum. If they are going to make Anita's rape more obvious, then it isn't "spit" hitting the fan. The language of the dialogue didn't match the visual imagery anymore. Second, the whole Somewhere scene was way out of place. Bringing Anybodys into the scene I can only assume is a means to promote marriage equality. While the gay rights movement has taken the song as an anthem for equality, and it is a fitting song for that purpose, it doesn't work to use it in the context of the show to highlight Anybodys sexuality. If they wanted to use the show as a medium of promoting equality, there are better ways to do so than some strange ballet sequence. It works about as well here as it did in Oklahoma. It is beautifully performed taken by itself, but it doesn't fit the show. Good message, wrong medium. I actually liked the use of Spanish for the Sharks. I think I would have preferred that it be completely in Spanish with a translation video screen like they do in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Unfortunately it wasn't executed well, nor was it popular with the audience. I overheard a Clowes Hall staff member telling someone in the audience, "well, they may sing in Spanish, but I will be singing along in English." The same person was also overheard referencing Spanish-language commercials and saying, "this might work in Los Angeles, but it doesn't work in the Midwest." I wonder how she felt about the Cheerios interracial marriage ads. I guess this proves that the original themes of racial tension still hold true today. And what was up with the loud set changes in the middle of the song "Maria"?
  • Anybody's show
    I found the focus on the role of Anybody throughout the entire show to be fascinating. In some ways it made the show much more relevant for me, and I actually enjoyed seeing her included in the ballet - maybe not intentional, but the fact that it was so hard to tell the Jets and Sharks apart made their feud seem so absurd, leaving the audience thinking, oh that sort of hatred can't happen today - but it does still happen with issues of gender and this in some ways made this production much more about Anybody and her gender than it did about Tony and Maria.

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