Let me tell you what's terrific about the current staging of West Side Story at the Fox Theatre: the sound. I've never heard songs so crystal-clear on the Fox stage. Of course, it helps that many of us have lived with these Stephen Sondheim lyrics all our lives. Nevertheless, sound designer Dan Moses Schreier and whoever is behind the soundboard are doing great work, because this West Side Story is a gift to the ears.
But mostly this revival of the revolutionary 1957 updating of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to New York City streets is a curious blend of the timeless and the antiquated. Leonard Bernstein's music remains as gorgeous as ever. Few musicals share the soaring rising line that occurs early in West Side Story, as it leaps from the promise of "Something's Coming" to the athletic lyricism of the "Dance at the Gym" to the tender lullaby that is "Maria" and then crescendos with "Tonight," the ultimate lovers' duet. But to be blunt about it, West Side Story's watertight structure is old news. This revival promised something fresh, and it does not deliver.
True, some of the Puerto Rican characters now speak a few lines of Spanish, for what little that's worth. But the really bad dialogue — those self-conscious phrases like "sperm to worm" and "womb to tomb" — is still here. It would appear that librettist Arthur Laurents, who spearheaded this "fresh" revival, lacked the objectivity to retool his own work for this version; any changes appear to be cosmetic.
Some things are simply wrong. Late in Act One, after the "Tonight Quintet," which earned a deserved ovation from the huge opening-night audience, the show segues into the rumble under the West Side Highway. This has always been a riveting sequence, partly because Jerome Robbins, the musical's original director-choreographer, incorporated a chain-link fence into the setting. As the young hoodlums scurried over that fence, the ripples of the links provided an electrifying new sound that had never before been heard in a musical. In this version, the fence is so huge that no one could possibly climb over it; hence, no sound. Instead, an overhead section of highway is slowly lowered onto the stage with all the portentousness of the arrival of the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The knife fight itself is so dimly lit that the pivotal moment when Bernardo fatally stabs Riff is murky. A police car arrives offstage left. When the Muny so marvelously staged West Side Story in 2005, the props folks came up with the flashing lights from a real patrol car. Here we get a vague red glow that might be a fire on the next block.
For a half-century, revivals of West Side Story have provided showcases for young talent. I have no doubt that there is much talent on the Fox stage, but I've never seen a less menacing bunch of hoodlums. These Sharks and Jets should be compelled to watch Vic Morrow in Blackboard Jungle, just so they'd have an inkling of the show's time frame.
Perhaps I'm spoiled, because three summers ago I saw a West Side Story in Stratford, Ontario, that didn't re-create the original Jerome Robbins choreography. Instead, it was thrillingly reconceived by choreographer Sergio Trujillo (whose work can be seen at the Fox in May in Memphis). It's hard to return to the old original after having experienced such a stunning re-interpretation.
For those who are attending West Side Story for the first time, this version is a fine introduction to a major work. As for me, the most memorable moment of the evening occurred before the show began. A clarinetist in the orchestra pit was practicing riffs from "Cool." Those jazzy notes emerged from the pit like a cobra rising from its basket, promising the lure of danger and excitement. That promise was not fulfilled. Instead we got a newly mounted museum piece. You can't argue with the virtues of classic art, but that doesn't make it fresh.