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'West Side Story' reception lukewarm

Theater West Side Story 

The show's up, the reviews are out and the reaction is, well, tepid. Not that any of this will prevent Arthur Laurents' revival of the classic "West Side Story," for which he wrote the original book, from being the hot ticket on Broadway for the foreseeable future. Laurents, who is as feisty as ever at 91, has as promised amped up the violence and (with the help of "In the Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda) translated some of the Puerto Rican characters' lyrics into Spanish. But his approach doesn't work for many of the critics.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times appreciates the fresh look but bemoans what he sees as a too-light treatment of the musical's implicitly dark nature:

...the show seems haloed in a softening mist of compassion, turning its sidewalk Romeo and Juliet — and most of its young characters — into imperiled babes in the woods. And as designed by James Youmans, the mean streets of Manhattan exude a rainbow lyricism, even in inky darkness. David C. Woolard’s costumes, as Peter Marks previously observed in The Washington Post, bring to mind the color-coordinated peppiness of Gap ads. Mr. Laurents has exchanged insolence for innocence and, as with most such bargains, there are dividends and losses.

Linda Winerof Newsday pines for Sondheim's old lyrics:

...what about Laurents' major innovation, the mixture of English and untranslated Spanish? Sí and no. The dialogue for the Puerto Ricans is vital in small doses. When entire scenes go by in another language, however, the audience feels as left out as the new immigrants. Even if that's the point, it should be a point and not a tiresome pretense. It takes more than idiomatic translations by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of "In the Heights") and a decent understanding of Spanish to make us understand what's really happening in "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That." I resent the missing Sondheim.

Charles McNulty at the L.A. Times isn't won over by Laurents' approach, but loves the show nonetheless:

Laurents is smart to up the vicious criminal ante, but he’s not able to make sense of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the song in which Bernstein and Sondheim impose a bit of vaudevillian shtick on the Jets. Played with less musical theater relish than usual, the number fails as both sociological portraiture and comic relief.

But who cares? “West Side Story” still tops nearly every other musical that’s followed it. Laurents’ uneven production may be noteworthy for the way characters slip in and out of Spanish, but the show continues to seduce in a theatrical language that remains universal.

Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune is the most excited of the crowd, but even he has reservations:

The difference of language was, of course, the crux of the whole original show back in the 1950s. It just couldn’t do it on stage. And so here we have the ideal piece of musical revisionism—something that’s both fresh and new and yet also illuminating the original artistic purpose.

Has anybody out there seen it yet? I'll post my thoughts, hopefully, before long.

--Colin Dabkowsi

(Photo from AP/Barlow-Hartman Public Rleations, Joan Marcus)

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