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Review Thu Jul 21 2011

Review: West Side Story @ Cadillac Palace Theatre

West Side Story touring showjpg
The Sharks dance the night away in West Side Story. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

When I was a kid (in the age before DVRs, Netflix, and bipeds), I watched West Side Story once a year on broadcast TV. It was a family event; all of us huddled together on the couch, waiting for the next commercial break to use the bathroom, even though we all knew what came next and how it ended. In my high school production I played the role of Snowboy's girlfriend (I don't remember what my character's name was -- I had no lines and appeared in three scenes), and by the time I graduated I felt like WSS wasn't just a musical based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but part of my own story; over the course of the 54 years since WSS premiered at the Winter Garden Theater in New York, I think many of us have come to feel the same way.

What I find most remarkable about the current Broadway In Chicago production of WSS is both obvious and groundbreaking -- for the first time that I'm aware of, the Sharks speak Spanish! I'd never found the absence of Spanish, save for a few throwaway words here and there like "querida," and "te adoro," to be odd, but hearing Spanish in full sentences onstage is like hearing the script for the first time. The choice to use Spanish without the aid of supertitles, used primarily in opera, makes perfect sense -- even if your grasp of Spanish is limited (as it is for me), it's safe to assume that most patrons know the story well enough to follow along. And honestly, in a city like Chicago, with significant Puerto Rican and Polish communities, no supertitles are necessary to translate a word like "Polaco."

Director David Saint explained the choice in an article in the LAStage Times. "Because both the world and the world of theater have changed since 1957, it now seemed appropriate at certain moments that the Puerto Rican Sharks should speak among themselves in their native Spanish tongue... When the process reached its completion in New York, several months after the Broadway opening, only about 10 percent of the show was in Spanish. However, I believe it makes a great difference." It makes a huge difference; language is culture, and having Spanish-speaking actors playing Spanish-speaking roles in Spanish makes so much sense that I'm embarrassed I never thought of it.

In addition to the use of Spanish, some of the street jargon was updated. "The plan was to remove much of the coy musical comedy theatre jargon of the '50s, like girls saying 'Oobley ooh' and 'Oobley ooh doo' or gang members uttering 'say uncle,'" Saint explained. "This would help to take the gangs more seriously as troubled youths who were a product of this world of bigotry and violence which Arthur (Laurents) had set out to create; ones capable of horrific acts in the tragedy of the story." I didn't notice the updated jargon as much as the inclusion of Spanish, although I did notice that this stage production was raunchier than anything I remembered seeing onscreen. There was an audible gasp from the audience as a bed, on which a post-coital Tony and Maria were asleep (and from initial appearances, nude), rolled onto the stage, and a collective groan swelled from the audience during "Gee, Officer Krupke" at the precise moment when Action interpreted the word "jerk" with a gesture I've never seen used in any production of WSS, anywhere.

Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt's interpretations of Tony and Maria are believable and touching, but there's no question that the star of the show is Michelle Aravena in her turn as Anita. Aravena brings new meaning to the term "triple threat": she sings, dances, and acts with equal precision, and steals every scene she's in. The dancing in this production is outstanding, and the orchestra doesn't miss a beat. And even though I already know how the story ends, damn it if I didn't jump out of my seat just a little when Chino fired his gun at Tony, and damn it if I didn't tear up during the final scene.

West Side Story
runs through August 14 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 W. Randolph). Performances on Tuesdays through Sundays, tickets start at $32 with group pricing available. For more information call 800-775-2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago or Broadway West Side Story.

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yaj / July 22, 2011 3:43 PM

I agree, Michelle Aravena was amazing as Anita.

patti / July 24, 2011 3:31 PM

Just was play last night. Thought
German Santiago who played Bernando was a stand-out among the cast. Every sentence and movement he uttered made a statement. The dancing and choreography was precise, muscular, and interesting.
The singing was weak (Tony and Maria)and some
members of the gangs were not believable as tough guys.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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