West Side Story Misses Balance of Heart and Grit

Tough to lift West Side Story off the runway with Jet-less Jets.

Compromised by questionable casting and oddly inert, the tour of the 2009 Broadway revival of the 1957 classic ambled rather than rumbled through The Smith Center recently, its gritty essence gutted.

Famously repositioning Romeo and Juliet in 1950s New York, West Side Story banks on menace and tension between warring gang kids, the American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, squaring off over the romance of ex-Jet Tony and his immigrant lover, Maria.

Yet from the opening set piece, the dance in which the gangs taunt each other, the Jets are less thuggish than cartoonish, the toughness steamed out in favor of balletic grace—pretty, but an error from which the production never recovers. Though the Sharks are more predatory, both gangs were hampered by their leaders. Braying annoyingly as Jet honcho Riff, Theo Lencicki lacked magnetism, while Andres Acosta, though physically imposing, couldn’t summon the anger-fueled machismo of Bernardo, the Sharks’ kingpin.

Only briefly did the Jets rev up, after Riff’s demise in Act II’s “Gee Officer Krupke.” As Action, Riff’s successor, Guy Mandia Jr. energized the otherwise apathetic Jets.

However, the most crucial misstep—the portrayal of love-smacked Tony—probably isn’t the fault of actor Addison Reid Coe, who was likely respecting a misguided tradition that has long afflicted West Side Story. Following Larry Kert, the original stage Tony, Richard Beymer cemented the role in the public’s mind in the 1961 movie, imbuing the character with swooning romanticism but little of the edge Tony would need as Jets co-founder, dragged back into the world of gang violence.

Few depictions have dared depart from that interpretation. Perhaps someday, a director will swallow hard, break with tradition and turn Tony back into a reformed thug with some remnant of steel, rather than a thoroughly gooey-hearted Romeo.

Blessed with a voice both angelic and powerful, Coe did do marvelous justice to the iconic tunes, his heart seeming to burst through his chest on “Maria,” and giving our skin a tingle in “Tonight,” his duet with well-cast Mary Joanna Grisso as Maria. Dewy, pretty and brimming with naïve optimism, Grisso made Tony’s love plunge understandable, though she ultimately failed to tap the seething rage at her lover’s murder.

As Anita, Maria’s saucy sister and Bernardo’s squeeze, Michelle Alves delivered the role’s trademark spark, though her featured number with the Shark gals, the dynamic “America,” suffered a mild case of lethargy.

Several songs soared, including “The Rumble,” the Act I-ender that was a crescendo of love and rage, and “Somewhere,” staged as a surreal, white-backdrop fantasy as Tony and Maria yearn for “a place for us.” Dollops of Spanish dialogue and lyrics were doled out sparingly, never impeding the action for theatergoers who aren’t bilingual.

Yet you know this classic has gone fatally wrong when the finale’s intended emotional explosion—the shooting and death of tragic hero Tony—is met with scattered giggles.

That’s truly a knife to the gut of West Side Story. ★★☆☆☆