West Side Story is widely considered to be one of the finest musicals ever written and it can be one of the most moving and emotionally-draining experiences one can have in the theatre. It has the capability of taking the audiences on a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows - from laughter to despair -- that, in capable hands, is so satisfying. However, I found the production last night at The McCallum to be less than satisfying. It was pretty. It was polished. But it was also pat and predictable and not the emotional journey that it could have been. This touring production wavered between "soap opera" and "sitcom" and never quite hit the mark on a dramatic level.
Thaddeus Pearson seemed totally miscast as Tony. Or, at a mimimum, mis-directed. He has a lovely voice and a natural "musical theatre" charm, but he was so squeaky clean and "boy next door" that it was impossible to picture him as the former leader of one of New York City's toughest gangs. He carried himself like a somewhat goofy "Mouseketeer" for most of the show and seemed disconnected from the gritty reality of the storyline - some of his over the top and misplaced "enthusiasm" was reminiscent of Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch. Caroline Snachez's Maria was flat, one-note and unemotional - thus unbelievable and unsympathetic. She put on a rather affected dialect for most of her dialogue --- but lost it completely every time she sang and her vocals were as "white bread ingenue" as they come. Again, a lovely voice - but so much more is required of an actress cast in this role. Maria was never meant to be a "Disney princess". (When this review first appeared, I mistakenly critiqued the leading actor whos names appeared in the program, not having recieved the information that understudies had taken on the roles of Tony and Maria. The names, above, are the corrected names of the understudies. The critique of the peformances stands. Apologies to all concerned.)
The strongest moments in the show came from Michelle Alves' Anita who displayed tremendous range and refreshing honesty. She seemed authentic and was brilliant in both the "A Boy Like That" and Rape at Doc's Drugstore scenes. She was the only actor who approached the material with a sense of "real" and was riveting. Her playfulness and sense of humor in the lighter scenes helped to lift them, without wandering over into "situation comedy land", as did others.
Theo Lencicki's Riff added a strong masculine energy to the Jets, however he put on a forced Brooklyn dialect that seemed obviously contrived. Especially since no one else in the gang had any, let alone a similar, dialect - except when they said words like "dis-toibed" as written in the book. Most of the other Jets came off as comic book characters - characters heightened beyond any sense of reality and "cutesy antics" that betrayed a sense of masculinity or truth in their circumstances. The "Officer Krupke" number played like a vaudeville sketch and completely took the audience out of the show. It was better suited for a "Broadway Revue" than supporting the story in a more believable fashion. The Jets, over all, needed more testosterone and more intention - and less over-the-top cartoon characterizations. The Sharks were far more believable. Andres' Acosta's Bernardo was handsome, strong and charismatic and Juan Torres-Falcon's Chino a believable sidekick.
The "Somewhere" sequence was just embarrassing and I kept saying to myself - "what were they thinking?" The dream sequence made no sense and was, at best, corny, and, at worst, laughable. It was unnecessary and the moment would have been more poignant and touching if left to Tony and Maria, alone. The intimacy of this very important moment in the story was lost in misguided modern dance. It was the only moment where the dance failed, rather than supported, the story. And it was a big miss.
The scenic elements were just enough - the lighting was above adequate - the costumes were top notch. The dancers were very strong and Jerome Robbin's choreography -- re-staged and, in some cases, re-imagined --- was as strong as ever in its visual storytelling.
The final scenes in the show were overplayed and melodramatic and any honest emotional connection between actors and audience was lost in translation. All in all, it was an unremarkable production. The added Spanish dialogue is a plus (except in "I Feel Pretty" where Maria goes back and forth - English to Spanish to Spanglish - in a rather schizophrenic fashion with no real necessity) but this production brings nothing new to this much-seen classic. A night at the theatre is always better than a night not at the theatre - so if you love West Side Story it is a production that is worthy of the ticket. Just don't expect any surprises.