West Side Story Academy of Music Review – A Timeless Classic

West Side Story will be playing at the historic Academy of Music, from March 28 through April 8.

Performances include: Tuesday – Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm; Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm; Sunday evening at 6:30 pm; and matinees Saturday at 2:00 pm and Sunday at 1:00 pm.

We attended the Wednesday, March 28, 2012 performance of West Side Story, at the historic Academy of Music, at Broad and Locust Streets. Our review:

Few Broadway shows are as closely associated with Manhattan as West Side Story, given its title and setting in a gritty neighborhood in the middle of the 20th century.

Ironically, however, Philadelphia had the chance to see it, before any New Yorker did. Back in 1957, after opening initially in Washington, DC, West Side Story appeared at the former Erlanger Theater at 21st and Market Streets (which has been gone since 1978). It was common at the time for Broadway shows to try out-of-town previews (often in Philadelphia or New Haven, CT) hoping to discern any flaws, as well any improvements, that could be made, from critical feedback and audience responses.

And so, over a half-century after its initial appearance in Philadelphia as a groundbreaking musical, the national touring company of the revival of West Side Story has returned to our fair city. A smash hit in its own original version, it spawned the 1961 Oscar-winning film and a legion of amateur productions, over the decades. (We ourselves were on the production staff, of an amateur production of West Side Story, at our beloved alma mater, St. Joseph’s Prep, of which we have pleasant memories. Accordingly, it was a real thrill to see the masterpiece performed professionally, for the first time.)

Revivals in 1964 and 1980 were equally successful, and this touring company is the result of a far more recent Broadway revival, which ran for 27 previews and 748 performances, from February 23, 2009 through January 2, 2011 – slightly longer than the original production, in fact, which had 732 performances.

West Side Story remains as popular as ever, in the 21st-century, as the packed crowd at the historic Academy of Music indicated (as well as the standing ovation they gave the cast last night.)

Of course, West Side Story wasn’t guaranteed to be a smash hit, when it was first produced in the 1950s. The original librettist, Arthur Laurents, said that he thought “maybe it would run for three months”. (Laurents ended up directing this revival, prior to his passing away in May 2011.) It took over seven years, for the concept to gestate from idea to full-fledged show. Not only did it address issues of racial and ethnic tolerance, at a time when they were at the forefront of political issues and national concern – it was based directly on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

In others words, it was a “musical tragedy”, as opposed to a comedy. Nobody had previously attempted to use the musical-comedy genre to tell a tragic story – a plot better suited to a play, or an opera. This show has tragic elements of violence, murder, and death in it. While those elements aren’t unheard of in musicals today, that was because of the pioneering work of West Side Story.

Its creators were cognizant of this problem. You’ll notice, that despite the many serious, operatic ballads of love, friendship, and heartache, much of the dialogue is quite funny. Moreover, light numbers such as “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” exist to provide comic relief. But nobody was sure if audiences, and/or critics, would react positively to the dark, innovative show. Backers were slow to invest their money, in a concept that seemed to have little critical or commercial appeal.

Gangs, then as now, were a serious social problem in troubled urban neighborhoods. The staging you’ll see is that of a bleak, foreboding, ominous neighborhood. One of the many underlying tragic themes, is the fact that the Jets and Sharks battle to the death, for no great moral principle, or just cause. They clash, aside from ethnicity, for merely the political ownership of a near-worthless several blocks of asphalt, in an undesirable neighborhood. It leads to tragedy, due to animosity and the unchecked impulses of youth. The highway overpass and fire escape metal ladders reinforce this theme – all of the guys and girls in the gangs are trapped in this maelstrom of escalating violence and hatred.

The official notes say that it isn’t recommended for children under 14, and we concur; we wouldn’t recommend it for that age group, either. There are a number of off-color lines, gestures, etc., as well as the violence, and so you should leave the kids at home.

But enough about the dark stuff. The fate of a pair of doomed star-crossed lovers was best articulated by Shakespeare in the 16th century, and the legend based on this theme goes back even further, to medieval stories such as Tristan and Isolde. But the mid-20th century version is a great work of art in its own right.

The use of dancing and choreography, to express thoughts and emotions in a musical, was groundbreaking and amazing to watch – and remains so, on the Academy of Music stage. The magnificent score by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by the equally great Stephen Sondheim, continues to soar to euphoric heights and soul-crushing depths. It seemed particularly fitting for it to be performed at the Academy of Music, where the Philadelphia Orchestra played for so many decades.
We are pleased to say that this energetic revival has brought West Side Story to life in magnificent, spirited ways. The perfect mixture of dance, drama, and both the highest and lowest of human emotions can be found in West Side Story. And the performers in this touring production have done complete justice to the vision of the luminaries who created the show back in the mid-20th century.

The five leads – Ross Lekites as Tony, Evy Ortiz as Maria, Michelle Aravena as Anita, Drew Foster as Riff, and at our performance, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as the understudy for Bernardo – all bring tremendous vocal power to accompany their superb acting of very difficult lead roles. But, as always, when it comes to West Side Story, the ensemble is just as vital to the success of the show as the leads. 37 actors comprise the company, according to the press notes. And during the big ensemble scenes, such as “The Dance at the Gym” and “The Rumble”, the high quality of their dancing skills is most evident.

We thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and give it our highest recommendation. It represents the opportunity to see a legendary musical brought to life. Don’t miss the opportunity.

West Side Story will be playing at the historic Academy of Music, from March 28 through April 8.

Tickets ranging in price from $20 to $100 are now on sale. Tickets can be purchased by calling 215-893-1999, online at kimmelcenter.org/broadway, at the Kimmel Center box office, Broad & Spruce Sts. (open daily 10 am to 6 pm) or at the Academy of Music box office, Broad & Locust Sts. (open during performances only). Groups of 10 or more will receive discounts for select performances by calling 215-790-5883 or 866-276-2947.

Performances include: Tuesday – Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm; Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm; Sunday evening at 6:30 pm; and matinees Saturday at 2:00 pm and Sunday at 1:00 pm.

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