A Word In Edgewise: Still Star-Crossed, After All These Years

Photo courtesy of BigStock/Bloodua

I saw West Side Story in 1957. I still have my Playbill. Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the drama of star-crossed lovers that opened the Guthrie’s 2017-2018 season. Their season’s finale, fittingly, is West Side Story, Montagues and Capulets replaced now by New York 1950’s gangs Jets and Sharks.

With an admirable if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach, director Taj hewed to the original script. Some language and actions seem almost quaint today, as when the Jets leader, proposing a rumble asserts, “New protocality calls for a war council to decide on a weapon,” and one wonders whether the Sharks “might ask for bottles or knives or zip guns.” Times change; the fervor is timeless. Sixty or six hundred years ago, “This turf is small but it’s all we got,” or “Without a gang, you’re an orphan,” would resonate in many a village or tribe.

Most lines don’t need tweaking to be up to speed today. Officer Krupke, one of four adults in the play, pulls rank on a Shark, growling, “I got the badge, you got the skin.” In “America”, the PR girls counter one thinking of going back “home,” with a litany including, “I’ll bring TV to San Juan,” and the retort, “If there’s a current to turn on,” and, “Nobody knows in America / Puerto Rico’s in America.” Brilliant, and even more chilling in 2018 than 1957.

Two astute changes from the original: First, the gang members are diversified, emphasizing turf more than ethnicity. Both are outcasts, the Sharks merely the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the authorities; and the viewer gains a clearer understanding of why these youngsters would fight to the death over a patch of tenement street neither owns.

The second is the “rebooting” of Jerome Robbins’ choreography, superbly achieved by Maija Garcia. Star class raised to super nova; explosive, athletic, balletic, never overwrought or extraneous. At the fatal, heart-stopping conclusion of the gangs’ rumble the curtain drops for Intermission.

At this point, recounts a friend, a Broadway actor also at the Winter Garden Theater in 1957, the fellow seated in front of him turned around. It was actor/comedian Paul Lynde, who, in his notorious snarky voice cracked, “Ya gonna’ stay?”

They did. I did. And so will you.

West Side Story will run at the Guthrie through August 26.

Comments are closed.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!