For a grittier West Side Story than you may remember from the 1961 movie, you should consider seeing the touring version at PPAC this week.
Maria is still authentically angelic and her Romeo, Tony is still sweet-souled yet manly - and no wonder, given heâ€™s also an actor on the soap Guiding Light - but whatâ€™s changed the most in 50 years is that the musical, corny to begin with, has lost a lot its corn and is far a more harshly real. Perhaps the biggest number to be affected is â€śGee, Officer Krupke,â€ť in which a number of vulgar gestures are used to make plain as day the reality of what â€śsocial diseaseâ€ť in the lyrics is really referring to.
Itâ€™s a dark comedic song, despite the friendly homo-erotic vibe, because of their glib near-forgetfulness of the violent showdown that just occurred - and you really believe these kids are a little more whacked up than maybe you were aware, given they can joke so cavalierly so soon after their neighborhood massacre. Shakespeareâ€™s Romeo and Juliet and this Leonard Bernstein classic seem more closely aligned than ever, thanks to this thorough meddling of comedy and tragedy, pristine innocence and careless violence.
The dancing is probably the ingredient most true to our memories of the movie, as down-to-earth as it is airily agile. This updated version has a delightful dip into fantasy, which I donâ€™t remember seeing before, where Tony and Maria broaden their plaintive dreams of a non-violent world in â€śSomewhere,â€ś to encompass all their friends and community - and to show support, their talented dancing friends drop in to demonstrate the idea quite movingly.
My one qualm about this production is that it was hard throughout to hear or follow the dialogue. I donâ€™t know if the pit was drowning out the actors, or if most actors felt the need to speed-mumble through their words, but what was lost in the talking was more than made up for in the freeing dancing and singing, which beautifully got across all their anger and despair against each other and themselves.
I donâ€™t think I ever appreciated before what a consistently aggressive and angry musical West Side Story is. Perhaps the original stage musical was rough, but the movie smoothed it over and buttered it up, so we have an inappropriately innocent conception of it, even if it was never that wide-eyed innocent to begin with? Even when not doing the famous poetically violent dancing of Sharks versus Jets, everyoneâ€™s always got a point to shout at or bicker with someone else, whether itâ€™s â€śAmerica,â€ť where the Puerto Rican men and women have opposing missions in the U.S., or even â€śI feel pretty,â€ť when Mariaâ€™s friends arenâ€™t nearly so happy for her happiness with Tony as she is - too bad for them, because this Maria is funnier and more naturally adorable than any other version Iâ€™ve ever seen. At the same time the show keeps a lot of its classic elements: the constant finger snapping, perhaps even icier a gesture than it was in the 60s, for example.
In other words, West Side Story hasnâ€™t lost anything - in fact, itâ€™s probably cooler than it ever was. Itâ€™s street smart, and more importantly, it honors rather than sanitizes the races, even inserting a lot of Spanish dialogue and lyrics I hadnâ€™t heard before.
Perhaps my favorite dance of violence, because I found it the most arresting and effective, was the couplesâ€™ neighborhood dance in the first act, when one race couldnâ€™t bear the thought of dancing with the other, and conveyed their mutual deep-seated revulsion toward each other madly, but so devastatingly to the powerless sad-faced grownups on the sidelines. Racism hurts hard, and being around it whenever itâ€™s accepted makes us limitlessly more stupid: and that feeling was hammered home in pretty much every song and every dance, without the music slowing down into preachy pop or losing its lovely weightlessness - all more than I expected from a re-run of an old classic.
For tickets and more information visit www.ppacri.org.
Abby Fox is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.