I looove the Academy-Award winning film, West Side Story. It’s been a favorite since I was a child. From the brilliant opening sequence to the wall-graffiti end titles, I was glued to the television set every time it was re-broadcast. I would compare and contrast the original Broadway cast recording with the film’s soundtrack album, both in my mama’s record collection, and twirl about my room singing and loving Rita Moreno’s simple but saucy lilac dress in costume as Anita.
I was not yet born during its original theatrical run and was delighted to see it on the big-screen for the first time just over a year ago when it was screened alfresco at the foot of the majestic Brooklyn Bridge with the Manhattan skyline providing dramatic back drop. It was thrilling to see it in this format, in all its Technicolor glory.
Having watched the PBS broadcast of the film just days before I traveled to celebrate the holidays in Washington, DC with family, I had the Stephen Sondheim-penned lyrics on my mind when my sister piled our mother and me into the car to head downtown for a “surprise.” I broke into song, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way…” and subjected my family to the entire songbook. Just moments after I screeched the last note I looked up to see in the distance, the marquee of the National Theater which read in bold, distressed red lettering, “West Side Story.” I screamed.
We took our seats and I felt like a little girl again as the orchestra began the familiar overture, excited by the specter of experiencing the live performance. Now Arthur Laurents, librettist of the original 1957 production, and director of this revival “abhors” the film I so love. Russian-born Natalie Wood horribly accenting Maria, “Make it no be true” was just one of the inauthentic elements from the film Laurents endeavors to redeem in the classic retelling of Romeo and Juliet. He, for instance, insisted upon casting Spanish-speaking actors, not just anyone with rudimentary knowledge of high-school Spanish in the roles of the “Sharks” and the women in their lives. Much of their dialogue and lyrics is spoken and sung in Spanish with English subtitles. Argentine newcomer, Josefina Scaglione is classically trained in opera and performs Maria beautifully. The scenic design by James Youmans and lighting by Howell Binkley place us solidly in Doc’s Candy Store, in the gym, in the shadows of the Upper West Side streets.
I was fully engaged in the first act and looked forward to the resolve, but only moments after we returned from intermission, a siren blared and an evacuation order announced due to a smoke situation. The brave men of the DC Fire Department arrived, quickly assessed the situation and declared the space safe. I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled with the second half, but I am not certain if the potential threat of death by fire didn’t ruin the momentum. I’ll gleefully give it another go later this month when it begins its Broadway run at the Palace Theater on February 23.