“West Side Story” is jazzy, brassy revival of conflict and romance among 1950s gangs

By Lucy Komisar


The free-floating anger exuded by the Jets and Sharks as they clash under a highway or leap onto fire escapes is combustible. Any reason for the gangs’ hostility? Well, when Police Officer Krupke (Lee Sellars) arrives in the neighborhood, near the Hudson River on the Upper West Side of New York City, he slams a kid in the stomach with a Billy club.

At another moment, Police Lt. Schrank (Steve Bassett) comes into a local drugstore and insults the Puerto Rican Sharks as migrant scum. How’s the action on your mother’s mattress? he asks Action (Curtis Holbrooke) as the youth’s buddies keep his rage from striking out. When the Sharks are ordered out of Doc’s drugstore by the insulting Schrank, the gang leader, Bernardo (George Akram), whistles ironically, My country ’tis of thee

The sociological stage is set. There’s nothing dated about Arthur Laurents’ striking revival of his West Side Story which first opened on Broadway in 1957. This American theater classic is another proof that the best, most enduring musicals (and plays) combine personal stories with political ones.


The women are equally driven and seething. Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Karen Olivo), is a sassy lady with attitude as she spits out the satirical America.  Puerto Rico . . .You ugly island . . .Island of tropic diseases. Always the hurricanes blowing, Always the population growing . . . And the money owing, And the babies crying, And the bullets flying. So, she and thousands of other Puerto Ricans came to New York – where they were not welcome.

On the other hand, there’s a parody of the liberal notion that bad kids are victims of social ills beyond their control, a longtime favorite of mine, the ditty about Office Krupke. Riff (Cody Green), a Jet, sings: Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke/ You gotta understand/ It’s just our bringin’ upke/ That gets us out of hand/ Our mothers all are junkies/ Our fathers all are drunks/ Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks. The lyrics of course are by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim.


The choreography by Jerome Robbins, reproduced by Joey McKneely, takes off with jazzy arms flying, lots of brass, high kicks and jumps. Leonard Bernstein’s music of course defines what memorable means – we’ve been singing the songs and thinking the tunes in our heads for more than fifty years.

Though the men initiate the action, the strong roles are played by the women, especially by Anita and by her lover Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Josefina Scaglione), who will fall in love with former Jets leader Tony (Matt Cavenaugh). The women suffer the fallout of the men’s machismo.


Cavenaugh, with a mellow baritone, and Scaglione, with a sweet soprano, are charming as star-crossed lovers. Somewhere we’ll find a new way of living, Tony sings. There’s a place for us/ A time and place for us, they dream.

The production is made more vibrant by James Youmans’ sets, shifting from a space under the highway along the river enclosed by corrugated walls and a chain link fence, to the tenements dotted with fire escapes, to Doc’s drugstore and the school gym where, with David C. Woolard’s costumes, a dance turns into a flashing battle of short skin-tight skirts and flouncy Latin dresses.

It may be half a century old, but this show flashes right in the moment.

West Side Story. Book by Arthur Laurents, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Music by Leonard Bernstein, Directed by Arthur Laurents. Choreographed by Jerome Robbins, reproduced by Joey McKneely. Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway at 47th Street, New York, NY. Opened March 19, 2009.

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