More Than One Side to West Side Story

Courtesy photo
West Side Story is playing at Walton Arts Center through Oct. 30.

We’re talking Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and the late Arthur Laurents here. We’re talking the gangs of New York and ill-fated love. A story we all know. No surprise, the house was packed.

I saw an NPR article just last week where Rita Moreno was talking about the difficulty she had as a Latina actor playing Anita in the 1961 film version (for which she won an Oscar), having to wear makeup “the color of mud” to show the Sharks in visual contrast to the bleached, pale Jets. Times have changed, somewhat, and our considerations of West Side Story will inevitably have changed with them. Now, Ms. Moreno has had a long and stunning career, enduring all the typecasting to become the only Latina to win a Grammy, an Emmy, an Oscar and a Tony. This is a West Side Story post-Outsiders, post-Goonies and Spring Awakening; the context for our star-crossed lovers has changed.

Courtesy photos

When the Broadway West Side revival was reviewed in 2009, the New York Times noted that “Mr. Laurents has exchanged insolence for innocence and, as with most such bargains, there are dividends and losses.” The threatening, just about to blow nature of the gang members who sing “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” has taken a back seat in the latest version to a starker realization that really these are just kids. The gains, in my eyes, are the depth of feeling between a slightly more complicated Tony and Maria, and a seeming acknowledgement of a better historical perspective on immigration and race relations (at least, an understanding that shows the continued primacy of these issues). Our audience today can be expected to have a grasp on a little Spanish (the new production has been infused with more of the Puerto Rican characters’ native language). Some songs even rely on it almost entirely, “I Feel Pretty” for example. So for me, the benefit, as with any revival, is the mirror effect created seeing a ‘timeless’ show, re-imagined for a specific time and place. We get the opportunity to examine what cultural underpinnings, like love-at-all-costs romance and ungoverned youthful violence, may tell us about where we come from and where we might be going. That alone covers the value of the ticket in my opinion.

The recent reincarnation of West Side Story serves up an overall solid production with vibrant moments. Fans of the show should be pleased: all of the original fireworks are well intact. The orchestration is wonderful, keeping the energy ever up; the score has lost none of its modern verve and immediacy. While, I wouldn’t call it spectacular, the dancing is as energetic as ever; particularly, the fight-dance scenes that West Side is famous for really pop. And, there are some notable performances from some doe-eyed, rosy-cheeked stars, too.

“America” really shines as a stand-out number. Michelle Aravena’s Anita is spot-on, saucy and strong. Tony, handsomely played by Ross Lekites, also shows off some impressive vocal chops, lending this show a portrait of innocence that is boyish, misled and urgent. Opposite, Evy Oritz as Maria is quite believable, with her own headstrong naivety. The love affair here, perhaps more so than in any other production, really comes to the fore.

Go see it for the dancing, for the unforgettable score, the singing and the memories. Let me know what you think West Side Story means for us today. The show will be playing at the Walton Arts Center through Sunday, October 30th. I recommend you purchase tickets beforehand at