- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2009

How do you make a 52-year-old musical relevant to today’s generation? Leonard Bernstein’s emotionally jarring and complex score, coupled with the slangy wit of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ soaring dances, of course, are assurance enough that “West Side Story” will remain an enduring classic.

In the case of the dynamic new revival of the legendary 1957 musical - onstage at the National Theatre before heading to Broadway - it was a stroke of genius on the part of director Arthur Laurents (who wrote the original book and, at 90, is still coming up with fresh ideas) to have much of the dialogue and songs translated into Spanish.

This revision not only gives “West Side Story” newfound naturalness and passion, but it also heightens the emotion of this teenage-gang romance - a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” - between a Puerto Rican girl named Maria (Josefina Scaglione), newly arrived in America, and Tony (Matt Cavenaugh), a Manhattan boy and leader of the Jets, the street gang that became his family years ago. For audience members who are not bilingual, the Spanish also serves to help you empathize with the isolation and “apartness” immigrants must face in a different culture and language.

A predominantly Latino cast portrays the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, and their molls. Kat Nejat is a standout as the coquettish Bebecita, especially in the show’s Alpha Girl rendering of “I Feel Pretty,” and adds to the show’s more authentic and less Broadway-fluff feel. Karen Olivo’s Anita, the headstrong girlfriend of gang leader Bernardo (George Akram), is one of those performers you can’t take your eyes off of. With her throaty voice and sinuous dancing, combined with the menace-charged grace of Mr. Akram, you sometimes wish “West Side Story” were the Anita and Bernardo Story.

As Maria, the crystalline-voiced Miss Scaglione is a luminous combination of purity and youthful passion. While inexperienced when first meeting Tony at a school dance, her newly awakened feelings transform her into a young woman of purpose. Her portrayal of Maria makes you acutely feel for the quickness of time - how life can change in an instant, and how short our time is with the ones we love.

Mr. Cavenaugh’s Tony, however, does not stand up all that well against the power of Miss Scaglione’s Maria. Overall, the female performers exude a tough gleam and are more striking than the supposedly threatening gang members they’re dating. The personable Mr. Cavenaugh has a supple singing voice and is matinee-idol handsome, but he seems cornier than Kansas in August rather than a conflicted ex-thug from New York’s mean streets.

What could stand to be smoothed out in this “West Side Story” is whether the show is a totally modern update or true to its late ‘50s roots. The style of dress for the cast seems contemporary, as does the often hip-hop, booty-shaking attitudes of the gang members and their women.

On the other hand, you have the musical’s original elements that are solidly yesteryear, such as the setting of Doc’s - the drugstore where the Jets hang out - and the characters of corrupt cops Officer Krupke (Lee Sellars) and Lt. Schrank (Steve Bassett), who look like they walked out of a Mickey Spillane potboiler while the rest of the cast seems like they were sprung from the pages of an urban-fiction graphic novel.

Just which side is this “West Side Story” on?

STARS: …

WHAT: “West Side Story,” book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

WHERE: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 17.

TICKETS: $46.50 to $91.50

PHONE: 202/628-2947

WEB SITE: www.nationaltheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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