21 March 2001 | gbrumburgh
Dynamic and exhilarating landmark musical offering a still-topical spin on the age-old "Romeo and Juliet" story.
It is a testament to the musical and theatrical brilliance of "West Side Story" that this teenage urban love story, set to Shakespeare's classic "Romeo and Juliet," has survived its outmoded 50s-style book (Arthur Laurents) replete with "Dead End Kids" posturings and corny, streetwise lingo (I still cringe when I hear the word "daddio"). For nowhere will you experience such electrifying, jaw-dropping choreography (Jerome Robbins). Nowhere will you thrill to a more exhilarating, passionate, full-throttled score (Leonard Bernstein, with Stephen Sondheim providing the libretto). And nowhere will you find a more dynamic, better-crafted musical that arguably surpasses its Broadway stage predecessor from overture to finale.
Maria, a lovely, innocent Puerto-Rican girl ("Juliet") and sister of a formidable gang leader, falls for an opposing though reluctant white-skinned gang member Tony ("Romeo") with tragic results. Set in a tough New York neighborhood where the two disparate groups, the Jets ("the Montagues") and Sharks ("the Capulets"), battle for street territory armed with knives, zip guns and rocks, the determined love affair sets off a calamitous chain of events that, in the end, manage to instill hope in diversity. Topical enough?
The strength of "West Side Story" is that it does not try to hide its stage roots. It still unfolds like a musical play. The film is expanded but the talented cast is not dwarfed by on-location surroundings or panoramic camera work ("South Pacific" fell victim to this). On the contrary, the cast lights up every single playing space with sure-footed aliveness and plenty of 'tude. Co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins stay true to the original, having the sense not to alter or butcher the score ("Man of La Mancha") or haul in a slew of new, untried songs ("On the Town", which actually worked for that musical). In a particularly "Wise" move (sorry), two numbers were repositioned to enhance or intensify the narrative flow. In the film version, the "Officer Krupke" number sparked by a goofy Three Stooges-like levity, is moved earlier into the proceedings BEFORE the serious rumbles start, serving neatly as a light and humorous anti-establishment statement. The tightly-coiled, finger-snapping "Cool" number is pushed way back, giving both song and situation a heightened impact as it goads and ignites the Jet's feelings of pent-up rage and retaliation AFTER their leader is murdered. Smart move, daddio.
The late Natalie Wood has been crucified by critics for her ethnic portrayal of Maria ever since day one. It was not because of any political incorrectness at the time (reigning Hollywood white glamour queen goes Latino) for that hot issue didn't erupt until decades later. It was her limited range as an actress. But over the years, I have grown accustomed to Wood. Yes, despite the melodramatic leanings, the necessity of vocal dubbing (by the incomparable Marni Nixon), the flawed Puerto-Rican accent and the general overuse of Coppertone, I still feel for this Maria. What Wood does offer is utmost sincerity and heartfelt poignancy. So I'm one person who has gotten off the Natalie Wood-bashing wagon. Richard Beymer is another matter. An extremely weak, uncool choice for Tony, his toothy, freshly-scrubbed, chipmunk-like mug and awkward gait reads more like library assistant than gang member. Who would have thought Beymer would be the one to dazzle us much later in the totally cool and offbeat "Twin Peaks"? Still, Wood and Beymer commit themselves 100% and manage to create a credible, if not charismatic, love duet that doesn't get in harm's way.
Since the film's emphasis is really on dance, it's the flashy second leads who provide the real firepower. Rita Moreno's smouldering Anita ("The Nurse") is a spitfire of anger and attitude, while George Chakiris as her Shark leader boyfriend Bernardo ("Tybalt") demonstrates slick, controlled menace. Both Oscar-awarded here, Chakiris, in his debut, proved a lightweight acting talent himself, never finding a role like this again. Russ Tamblyn as Riff ("Mercutio"), the recently inaugurated leader of the Jets, is a hotbed of jaunty, scrappy impatience. Both he and Chakiris are riveting as they demonstrate poetry in motion, leading a pack of Edward Villela-like tough guys into athletic, gravity-defying dance moves.
"Romeo and Juliet vs. the 'Hood" should be required viewing for all grade-school children solely on the basis of art and education. The adults already know the value of this treasure.