At the Hobby Center
We all have had that one night where seemingly, everything happens in slow motion. You find the boy, the girl, and for some, maybe a little of both. Your toes curl and your nails tingle. You wish the world would just freeze and live in love-consumed teenage-like naïveté. But as you try to ignore reality, deep down in your core, you know it isn’t meant to last.
And then you go for the kiss. And it’s rather indulgently delicious. But soon the moment is over and tonight becomes yesterday. But "it all began tonight. And the world is wild and bright.” And yes, somewhere, there’s a place for this.
Isn’t it fun to suspend reality?
I have had a personal relationship with West Side Story and must say that, in my childhood, I was acquainted with the orchestra score prior to the musical itself. It was during the time I became obsessed with Leonard Bernstein’s compositions that I immersed myself in studying the intricacies of the orchestration. The music is rather difficult.
Or maybe I just loved to yell “mambo!” Growing up in a Latin family, anything with strong rhythmic impulses got to me. West Side Story is full of those moments, where seated hand tapping and foot stomping can dangerously osmose into more pronounced movements, like swaying and shoulder-hip oscillations.
I was thrilled to treat myself to an evening with Bernstein in Houston. Like meeting an old cherished friend, I had changed and my response to the work had also.
What was the hype about this particular production at the Hobby Center?
Running through Jan. 23, it is based entirely on the original production as directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, winner of five Tony Awards, two Academy Awards and received also accolades from the Kennedy Center. Robbins directed West Side Story’s original 1957 Broadway production and the 1961 film, which earned 10 Academy Awards out of 11 nominations. He died in 1988.
Those familiar with either would find exquisite similarities in the general feel and aesthetic of the production, and it was quite satisfying.
As traveling productions go, there were many elements that were executed impeccably. The set especially, though one door malfunction caused for a little comic relief. The smooth liquidity of the changes on stage did not distract from the strong emotional content.
After all, West Side Story is a romantic tragedy. Yes, I cried. I almost yelled in an attempt to help Tony get away before Chino executed his revenge.
As I child, I often found the dueling gangs in the film, the Jets and the Sharks, rather intimidating. Those guys seemed tough. But as I grew up, their intensity diminished, probably as a result of overexposure to other gory movies. They looked somewhat sissy.
But in this live production, they did manage to appear quite menacing and strong through the stylized but virile choreography. I could have easily developed a crush for Diesel, the strongest, tallest and toughest of the Jets, played by Kyle Robinson, who dominated the stage even though he had very few speaking or singing parts.
The choreography? Stunning.
That’s in spite of the stereotyped 1980s clothing: Jeans, jean vests, T-shirts with rolled up sleeves, head bands with hints of Punky Brewster.
The most successful scene? As the Jets mocked their nemesis, Officer Krupke, the actors lost all restraint to present a hilarious, rough and raw scene and much needed comic relief to an emotionally charged second act.
In an attempt to be more culturally real and authentic, the production transitioned often from English to Spanish and in one instance, I felt completely cheated from my favorite lyrics. “I Feel Pretty,” depicts the playful scene where Maria imagines her wedding. Most of us with romantic daydreaming inclinations have gone there, maybe more than once. And the departure from the original was quite painful, as well as lacking the satisfying rhyming scheme.
I had to wonder, why did they feel the need to do so? Would one translate certain parts of Bizet’s Carmen from French to Spanish in search of authenticity? Would Puccini’s Turandot be dotted with some sort of Central Asian dialect for accurate representation? Was it to speed up ticket sales?
Why mess with perfection? This iconic work should be left as is. Timing liberties in the opening scene left me puzzled.
On a more technical level, the difficult score had its share of issues. Numerous timing inconsistencies, brass misses and intonation issues left me cringing more than a few times. Tony’s character, played by boyish cute Kyle Harris, often overextended his vibrato beyond what was acceptable, bordering on delivering his tender songs in overly affected operatic style. His falsetto however, was stunning at times, and off at others.
For Maria, played by the exotically beautiful Ali Ewoldt, I wanted a little more purity and virginal simplicity, allowing room to develop her character. And for me, the piccolo should have wailed in the “Rumble,” “Mambo” and “America.”
What can I say? I am a flutist and always listen for these things.
The production still had many moments, making me cry, laugh, wiggle in my sweat, whistle, cat call and most importantly, got me on my feet at the end. I would see it again.
“Te adoro, Anton.”
And you should too.
My favorite scenes from a classic:
The dance scene at the gym with "Mambo" starting at about 2:00 minutes
The hilarious and energetically charged "America" scene
The comic "Gee, Officer Krupke"