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Come Again?

Revivals of West Side Story and Blithe Spirit work, more or less—more thanks to two performances.

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Back in 1957, when the word street was not yet an adjective, West Side Story exploded the boundaries of what a musical could be. Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins took a very old love story and transplanted it to the streets of fifties New York, turning gang turf wars into switchblade ballet. The show was a blast of sound and movement that reveled in both the tragedy and the exhilaration of violence.

But innovation so often becomes its own mummification, and before long, West Side Story became a go-to text for community theaters and high-school drama departments everywhere (as well as a hugely popular movie co-directed by Robbins and Robert Wise). Now, as he recently did with Gypsy, Laurents, 91, tries to reclaim his own chestnut by directing a revival, the first on Broadway in almost 30 years.

Does it work? Not quite, though not for lack of trying. The production has its strong moments, particularly in the early dance numbers. (Robbins’s original choreography has been carefully re-created by Joey McKneely.) In the opening salvo the homegrown toughs, the Jets (led by Cody Green’s Riff), and the Puerto Rican transplants the Sharks (led by George Akram’s Bernardo) mark their territory with scissor kicks and finger snaps against the fluttery apprehensiveness of Bernstein’s score, suggesting there really is something at stake in this asphalt Wild West.

But even though Laurents has taken some steps to modernize the book—chiefly by enlisting Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) to translate some of the dialogue and two of the songs into Spanish, ostensibly to impart a more realistic vibe to the proceedings—the show too often comes off as perfunctory, a cursory sprucing up of a touchstone that may have been better off left dusty and authentic. And in the end, the play’s dramatic power has nothing to do with contemporary relevance and everything to do with the songs and Robbins’s choreography. In fact, this production exposes too baldly the central flaw of the libretto: Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet stand-ins (played here by Matt Cavenaugh and Josefina Scaglione), may be nice kids, but they’re also the show’s least interesting characters; Tony, in particular, is something of a drip. Cavenaugh and Scaglione transmit the required innocence and purity, but neither is charismatic enough to make the production feel fully alive. Standing with his fists clenched, his inverted triangle of a torso displayed beneath a fitted shirt, Cavenaugh has the faux-casual air of an underwear model from a sixties Sears catalogue.

That can hardly be Cavenaugh’s fault: More likely, Laurents’s original conception of Tony is so comfortably familiar to him that he can hardly envision the character any other way. (Clips of Larry Kert’s Tony, from the original production, show him standing with the same stiff, assertive posture.) On the other hand, as Anita, Karen Olivo—with the feline sauciness of Eartha Kitt, and legs as long as Central Park—is the show’s most vital presence: In the still brashly effective “Tonight” quintet, she stands in silhouette dressed only in a skimpy chemise, looking forward not to the upcoming rumble between the rival gangs, but to the action she’ll see afterward, with her boyfriend, Bernardo. She’s a girl with an appetite: Not only does she like to live in America, she’s ready to eat it whole. And although the show’s newly translated dialogue comes off, overall, as more novelty than meaningful reimagining, when Anita sings “A Boy Like That” in Spanish (“Un Hombre Así”), her derision and fear are so vivid they bust through the confines of language. Olivo gives West Side Story its percussive pulse. In her, the spirit of 1957 lives. –S.Z.

In necromancy, a revival traditionally requires a strong case to be made for the resurrection in question, not to mention a powerful will on the part of the resurrector. On Broadway, it requires an empty theater and a pile of money. The latest visitation of Blithe Spirit, directed by Michael Blakemore (Copenhagen), has several producer-necromancers’ names above the title, but does it have an urgent reason to rouse its ectoplasm and haunt again? Do lean times lend themselves to a generously starched production of a Noël Coward farce that’s seen more reincarnations than Shirley MacLaine? Blakemore’s answer is a resounding “kind of,” but he has a secret weapon: Angela Lansbury.

Inhabiting daffy medium Madame Arcati with a heedless, crashing physicality that’s the exact opposite of ethereal, the 83-year-old Lansbury recalls not so much Margaret Rutherford (the elfin Arcati of the ’45 film) as Lucille Ball in her pratfalling prime. On paper, the hapless mystic arrives to amuse chilly novelist Charles Condomine (Rupert Everett) and his wary second wife, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), with a séance that conjures up Condomine’s vampy first wife, a resplendent Lombard-like imp named Elvira (the superb Christine Ebersole), not to mention all the half-banished demons of a half-happy marriage. But really, Arcati’s there to steal the show.

And steal it she does, with game assists from Atkinson (whose regal disdain anchors the tone). Lansbury’s roving Cruikshank features, peeking from beneath suitably ridiculous hats, register all disturbances both spiritual and, it sometimes appears, gastric. She wrings a laugh from nearly every line (even the ones she fumbles), and her dominance mitigates what some have seen as the play’s inherent misogyny, i.e., the seeming triumph of Condomine, the “astral bigamist” at center stage. But ladies, there’s little to fear from Everett: He’s got Condomine’s gelid self-regard down pat, yet even this comes off a tad muffled. Ultimately, he has chemistry only with himself, and it’s hard to see why anyone, living or dead, would fight for him. This production has the same problem: Only the ladies keep the night alive. –S.B.

West Side Story
Palace Theatre.

Blithe Spirit
By Noël Coward.
Shubert Theater.


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