West Side Story Heaven

December 25, 2007

Tears rolled down my face the minute the Jets started their jazzy, twitchy dance last week at the 19th Annual Gypsy of the Year. The opening number, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the original West Side Story on Broadway, was designed for maximum nostalgia for people like me who saw the musical at an impressionable age. Yes I love the movie and watch it from time to time for inspiration, but I loved the musical first, with Chita Rivera as Anita.

    Young dancers have been doing the Jerome Robbins choreography for decades. In this setting, at New Amsterdam Theatre, the costumes of the Jets were more like street clothes and less color-coordinated than in NYCB’s West Side Story Suite. So it lent itself to that rawness that WSS is famous for. Suddenly, an old guy joined them, and it was Ken LeRoy, the original Bernardo! He sauntered (if his earthbound gait can be said to be sauntering) across the front of the stage and pulled out a switchblade (or rather fumbled before finding his back pocket). The crowd roared. The kids onstage knew they were part of history.

    When Chita Rivera hits the stage, you don’t even have to use your imagination to wonder what she was like as Anita. She was fire. She is fire. When she stares down Carol Lawrence singing “A Boy Like That” you feel all the rage and grief and protectiveness that makes that song such a terrible accusation.

    Mickin Calin, the original Riff, sang “When You’re a Jet” and Reri Grist (the original Consuelo) and “Somewhere.”

    But the treasure was seeing 29 of the old cast interact with 30 young players. To see the old ones line up in front, doing the Jets song, some (like Grover Dale) still with the fight in him…was overwhelming and we stood up to give our heroes an ovation.

    Why is West Side Story so great? When I said this number was WSS heaven, I didn’t mean blue clouds and smiles. I meant it reminded me how real theater can be, how it can present personal and cultural conflicts without sugarcoating them. WSS seduces you into that world of the street, keeping the complexity and the human pain intact. It digs down and presents different voices pulling at each other in a way that makes you see, remember, and feel.

    The number was brilliantly staged by Josua Bergasse for Gypsy of the Year, which is presented by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

If you want to see a video clip of rehearsal, click here.

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