Billed as ‘The Original Broadway Classic,’ ‘West Side Story’ at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London is the victim of too much false praise and the unfortunate use of Arthur Laurents’ original book.
Laurents acknowledged that the 1957 show was seriously dated - which is why he rewrote and also directed what became the highly acclaimed and award-winning 2009 Broadway production with a 21st-century sensibility.
In the 50s, theatrical and social conventions neither allowed the use of authentic street language nor discouraged racial inequality. The original “West Side Story” was a perfect example of white-washing shows. It portrayed Hispanic gangs as the bad guys while making heroes of the Anglo gang members, and the verbal and body language was sanitized to avoid public outcry.
By 2009, Laurents decided to re-write and direct a radically different version of the show He felt the time was right to bring authentic speech, non-bigoted characterizations and a more honest book to one of the theater’s most acclaimed musical productions.
He succeeded in putting the Anglos and Puerto Ricans on a level playing field and gave a realistic jolt of heat between Tony and Maria in all their love scenes, including the show-stopping duets, “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.”
The show was the first sign of Sondheim’s lyrical genius with his powerful character-defining and plot-driving lyrics in his breathtaking Broadway debut: “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is your life.” And the one song that so perfectly articulates the heart and soul of this musical variation, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and elicits the most profound emotional response from audiences, as all great musicals should but so seldom do today, is “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love.”
The show already had a highly acclaimed score by Leonard Bernstein, and Tony Award-winning choreography by Jerome Robbins that explodes with some of the most exciting and energetic dancing seen in any musical, ever. Laurents’ hit retelling was skillfully and faithfully reproduced in a superb US national company in 2011.
In preparation for our August trip to London, we read the reviews from Time Out, "Still as gloriously fresh, relevant and thrilling as ever;" and The Observer, "If you buy one theatre ticket this summer, make it this one,”
As soon as we were settled in the Red Carnation Collection’s royally comfortable Rubens at the Palace Hotel, we took off on a shiny number 19 bus which dropped us off in front of the Sadler’s Wells Theater. That long ride, among other trips on London’s fleet of clean, comfortable buses, and underground trains using the money-saving Oyster cards, earned the city’s transportation system a rave review from us. (Transport for London website)
Joey McKneely’s stage production of this classic dance musical at Sadler’s Wells does feature Robbins’ original choreography, and conductor and composer Donald Chan does full justice to Bernstein’s iconic score. But it’s the original Laurents book that is problematic. The producers failed to use Laurents’ updated version, and the dialogue, to an American visitor to the theater in 2013, is embarrassing to hear. Perhaps the accolades of so many critics would have been justified if Sadler’s Wells had not presented the not-so “fresh and relevant” original libretto.
At the matinee that we saw, there was no chemistry between the actors playing Tony and Maria. These crucial roles were miscast, as were the older actors playing Officer Krupke, Lt. Schrank and Doc, who were shouting lines rather than acting. There was a Wednesday afternoon let-down in the general energy of the production. Even with amplification, many of the too quickly read, not acted, lines could not be understood in our first circle seats.
The only ‘chills up the spine’ moment came when everyone onstage was preparing for the rumble in the reprise of ‘Tonight’ near the end of the first act. That piece gave the company an operatic scene at its finest – and they did it beautifully. But when terrific actor Mark MacKillop as Riff was murdered as the first-act curtain went down, the best acting in the show was finished, too.
We may have been spoiled by the magnificent 2011 touring production at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, Connecticut. That run was also choreographed by Joey McKneely, but it was, in fact, the updated Laurents version of the show. It was faithfully and deftly directed, as Laurents intended, by David Saint. (You can read our review of that production by Googling ‘Don Church and Tony Schillaci West Side Story.’)
Arthur Laurents, in talking about the revised libretto just before he died, said “although this show was written some 54 years ago, we still haven’t learned, and the same prejudices and phobias exist, and in many places are worse than they were a half century ago.”
The Sadler’s Wells production is the old sanitized and less gritty one than the updated version. This 1957-era production minimizes the horrors that prejudice and intolerance have wrought upon minority groups to this day. It should have been better out of respect to the creators and today’s audience.
That said, if you’re in the port of London, pre-or-post taking a cruise from Southampton or Harwich, and treasure Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s lyrics and Robbin’s choreography, get an Oyster Card and take a shiny, clean new bus to Sadler’s Wells front door on Rosebery Avenue in royally-good-fun Londontown.
West Side Story plays through 22 Sep 2013
Extra Matinee - Thursday 12 September, 2.30pm
Ticket office: 0844 412 4300. From the USA: 011 44 844 412 4300
Performance times: Tue - Sat 7.30 pm
Wed & Sat Mats at 2.30 pm; Thu 12 Sep at 2.30 pm; Sun at 4 pm
Running time: 2 hrs 30 mins (including one 20 minute interval)
Tickets: £15, £30, £40, £52, £65, £75
Reviewed by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle, Out and Travelin'