You can have realistic depictions of gang members cursing, swaggering, fighting and killing one another. Or you can have them singing songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and dancing ballet-influenced choreography by Jerome Robbins. You just can’t have both on the same stage.
The revival of “West Side Story” that opened Tuesday night at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre and plays through Sunday has been promoted as a rougher, rawer telling of the Broadway classic. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book and oversaw the new production, said in a statement that “I felt the gangs in the original production were sweet little things. And the truth is, they’re all killers.”
But the real truth is, these killers still have to abide by the conventions of mid-1950s musical theater. And one! And two!
If this revival, which played Broadway from 2009 until recently, doesn’t bring a new and raw authenticity, it at least brings a propulsive energy that makes big portions of the show practically levitate the Fox. The strong cast is particularly adept at the big dance numbers, committing to Robbins’ old-fashioned but frequently ravishing swoops and swirls.
Obligatory recap: “West Side Story” is “Romeo and Juliet” reset in a New York slum in the ‘50s. The working-class Jets are one gang of juvenile delinquents, and the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants, are their rivals. Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Sharks’ leader. Since this is “Romeo and Juliet,” it does not end well for the star-crossed lovers, although the actual body count is lower than Shakespeare’s. Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents and Roberts created one of the pillars of American musical theater, which became an Oscar-sweeping 1961 movie and a perennial high school production.
This revival does make some significant changes to the 1957 original. Laurents had a lot of the Puerto Ricans’ dialogue and lyrics translated into Spanish, which makes the cultural divide more realistic. Maria’s “I Feel Pretty” now uses just enough English to establish the theme, but is sung almost entirely in Spanish. Fans of the musical will follow it all pretty easily, but I can imagine someone unfamiliar with it who doesn’t speak Spanish missing a lot of nuance.
Also, Tony and Maria have a serious case of the hots. There’s nothing you can’t watch with your kids at the Fox, but these two are, after all, supposed to be teenagers living out a brief, passionate and forbidden love affair, and they want to make out every chance they get. Ali Ewoldt has a ravishing soprano (no need for a Marni Nixon here) and plenty of sass as Maria, and Kyle Harris brings both muscled biceps and a sweet falsetto to Tony. (There was an appreciative female whoop from the audience when he appeared onstage in a wife-beater T-shirt on opening night.)
Many of the show’s most famous numbers — “Jet Song,” “America,” “Officer Krupke” — have been given small, enjoyable tweaks, but the biggest and best transformation is to “Somewhere,” which on the surface is optimistic but in the context of the plot is quite poignant. It’s usually a duet for Tony and Maria, but director David Saint empties the stage of sets, floods it with bright light and brings out the entire cast, with the sad little gang-wannabe Anybodys (Alexandra Frohlinger) taking the lead vocal. It elevates an already great song and makes it about the yearnings of everyone in the show. The sophisticated lighting adds a layer to many scenes, such as the balcony scene, lit as if it’s happening in a cathedral of stained glass windows.
“Somewhere” emphasizes how sweet and lost these kids are, for all their posturing. “West Side Story,” like its source, is about how adolescents view the world, as a cold place that conspires against the purity of their hearts and kills their dreams. And, yeah, sure, it’s also about gang members jumping up and down in unison and snapping their fingers while singing about how cool they are.