Posted by Joseph Gomez on Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Still West Side, Still Essential
There’s not much else to say that hasn’t been said about West Side Story and this revival. Therefore this will be a short review. We are all aware of the exceptional Leonard Bernstein score (perhaps the greatest score ever); we are all aware of the influential Jerome Robbins choreography; we are all aware of Karen Olivo’s fantastic performance as Anita. And of course we are all aware of the show's inherent flaws: a couple of low key performances that can’t measure up to their respective costars; and namely Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Spanish foiling of Stephen Sondheim’s wondrous lyrics.
To start, yes, the score is still phenomenal more than 50 years after its debut. Back in the ‘50s it was considered too "dissonant" and "complex" for the mainstream. In retrospect, those who spoke too soon look foolish. There is no denying the sheer beauty of the ballads like “Tonight” and “Maria” and the absolutely influential sounds of “Cool” and “America.” When was the last time you were able to listen to an album all the way through and be able to recognize every single track as a standard? And with the large orchestra accompanying the mostly successful cast, the songs really do sound as equally good as they do on the film soundtrack.
Speaking of quality sounds, Matt Cavenaugh is the best sounding Tony ever committed to disc. It’s a privilege to hear Bernstein’s music for Tony sung by a strong vocalist who can do it justice. Josefina Scaglione is fine as Maria, if not completely powerful in voice at least sweet. Cody Green’s Riff and Curtis Holbrook’s Action do solid work, with Holbrook creating a memorable presence for his minor role.
However one must single out Karen Olivo. The role of Anita has always been a coveted role for actresses of all races, and two of the most influential Latina actresses of all time made their marks performing in the original Broadway cast (Chita Rivera) and the Oscar winning film (Rita Moreno). Here Olivo gives a standout performance among the whole cast. She attacks her songs with confidence and with the sense of an actress. She is also given the opportunity to be the first Anita to be able to incorporate Spanish into her performance, allowing her to distance herself acting wise from Rivera and Moreno. Olivo claims in various interviews and news articles that she embraced that opportunity and was able to be liberated from sticking to the standard interpretation. By doing so, she has laid out a career path for her that is set to take off and go places. Her first major exposure as Vanessa in 2008’s Tony winner for Best Musical, In the Heights, landed her this role. Her own performance and hard work in this revival of West Side Story has paved the way for her to continue the legacy of influential Latina actresses and their connection to Anita. It gives me great joy and pride to predict great things for Karen Olivo in the future. May her career continue to blossom and flourish.
Olivo thanks her good friend Lin-Manuel Miranda for her breakout in In the Heights. It’s no small coincidence that Miranda was commissioned to adapt Spanish-language lyrics to Sondheim’s originals. Fellow blogger Chris writes much more eloquently and intelligently on this subject than I could hope to do so. So please refer to his review of the cast album for reference, particularly in the Spanish translations. I agree for the most part with the naysayers about the unnecessary gimmick. But the execution seems to trump the concept. While it’s kinda cool to hear a different sound, one definitely yearns for Sondheim’s remarkable lyrics in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Thankfully, the English language tracks of this song and “I Feel Pretty” are available via iTunes and a special edition disc available only at Barnes and Noble. Unfortunately, you do have to buy the entire album on iTunes and the whole B&N disc to obtain the recordings along with some extra bonus tracks. Kinda silly, but if you’re a WSS fanboy and lover, it's worth the (i.e. my) effort and money (this is where a playlist becomes handy for substitutions for key tracks).
Still, this is West Side Story. And a new recording can only do so much wrong. The essential quality of the material is still present and the strong vocal abilities of Karen Olivo and Matt Cavenaugh are jovial. Is this the definitive recording of the show? Maybe not. But neither is the movie soundtrack or the original Broadway cast recording. And the only reason the revival recording isn’t as essential of a disc as the previous two (which were important to bringing new sounds to both film and stage) has to do more with the familiarity of the material than with the disc itself. However, I can say without reservations that the revival recording will perhaps be the most played out of all of them in my life.
I seem to have written more than originally planned for West Side Story. I adore the show and it remains close to my heart as a highly influential landmark to my life. Perhaps I’d forgotten in recent years how much the show actually means to me. This revival has rekindled that love. And for that, I am grateful. Hopefully, I can make it out to New York to catch the show live before it closes. It will be at the top of my list.
***1/2 (out of ****)
Next reviews - Hair revival and Chess in concert