Theater Review: “West Side Story” at 50

By Caldwell Titcomb

It was something of a scandal a half century ago when West Side Story lost the best -musical Tony award to the mediocre and formulaic The Music Man. But time has a way of righting major mistakes. And the pervading verdict now places West Side Story at the pinnacle of the American musical theater – along with Show Boat, Carousel, Kiss Me,Kate, The Golden Apple, Sweeney Todd, and a few others.

Updating the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet, the work has a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim (the current issue of The Sondheim Review devotes eleven pages to the musical’s 50th anniversary).

To mark this milestone, the Boston Conservatory Theater Ensemble has mounted a production using performers around the age of the characters portrayed in the work. To flesh out the project, the institution also imported the composer’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein Thomas, to talk about the musical before a large audience.

She pointed out that director/choreographer Jerome Robbins originally conceived the work as a conflict between Jews and Italian Catholics on New York’s East side, until it was decided to focus on Puerto Ricans on the West side. She described her father’s music as “a perfect bridge” between Broadway and concert-hall traditions. There is highbrow and lowbrow, she said, but “my father’s music is all-brow.”

She said he was fully aware of the mid-century tension between tonal and atonal music, and explained the extensive reliance in West Side Story on a three-note cell: an ascending fourth followed by a tritone (such as G-C-F-sharp). As a result, “normal people can now sing tritones.” She asserted that “the music tells the story as well as the words do.”

Reaching its final form was unusually difficult, she said. “Something’s Coming” was inserted only two weeks before the opening; and “One Hand, One Heart” was originally intended for Candide. She stated that her father “never gave up on brotherhood and world peace,” and hoped that West Side Story would point in that direction.

The production is directed by Neil Donohoe, with musical direction by Bill Casey and a 28-piece orchestra conducted by Reuben Reynolds III. The music is rhythmically more intricate than that of earlier musicals, but Reynolds has elicited remarkable accuracy from his players.

John Bambery and Ashleigh Davidson are splendid as the lovers Tony and Maria, and the rest of the 33-person cast sing confidently. But what is even more impressive is the dancing. The work has a dozen choreographed pieces – more than any other musical before or since – and co-choreographers Stephen Reed (who worked extensively with Jerome Robbins himself) and Michelle Chasse have devised extremely demanding physical movements. Yet all these youngsters execute their breathtaking dancing with a precision that is absolutely sensational.

Andrew Stuart has designed a basic black wall covered with white graffiti. Sections of mesh fences fly in as needed, with other props to indicate a store, a bedroom or a bridal shop. David Costa-Cabral has fashioned contrasting garb for the members of the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. And John R. Malinowski has provided his usual effective lighting.

Performances continue through November 4 at the Boston Conservatory Theater, 31 Hemenway Street. Box Office: 617-912-9222.

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