In a time in when Jukebox musicals are filling more seats than shows with original songs, two revivals opened in Manhattan with enough familiar tunes that you’d think they were of this ilk, just another “Mamma Mia” or even the recent “Rock of Ages.”
But with all of the hits in tact, “West Side Story” and “Hair” are bringing their original, plot-driven songs back to the Great White Way and telling stories that are still fresh and topical today – which is surprising because neither show has been on Broadway for about 30 years.
“Hair” swooped into town first. With its first rate cast and standout performances for Gavin Creel (pictured above with cast) and vocally Sasha Allen (pictured below right with cast), it mostly hits all the right notes but still seems to be missing an emotional connection with the audience. Which is surprising, as there is as much action in the audience of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre as there is on stage, with actors often singing and dancing and truly involving some theatergoers right in the aisles.
Every actor gives it their all and then some. And they completely involve the audience, breaking the fourth wall on many occasions. Yet “Hair” didn’t move me enough to say this is a must-see production. It’s a good choice and if you’re an avid theatre buff and like to see all that is new, “Hair” really won’t disappoint. But if you want to be blown away, this just doesn’t do it.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, and only have the movie as reference, you should go into the production as this is a fresh new story because the film, although excellent, has made more plot and artistic changes than about any movie ever before. Songs in the film are sung by different characters and there are numerous plot changes that one wouldn’t think it was the same show.
And although “Hair” deals with race, war and freedoms, it for the most part is an uplifting show with songs that we all remember: “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” “Good Morning Starshine,” “Easy to be Hard” and “Hair” are all songs that people will be singing long after the curtain falls. For that alone, “Hair” succeeds – but just by a hair.
It’s been quite awhile since “West Side Story” has been on Broadway. And it has some tough shoes to fill as, unlike the movie “Hair” which few have seen, the film version of “West Side Story” is one of the most beloved movies of all time, winning 10 Academy Awards and telling the famous star-crossed romantic story of doomed lovers Maria and Tony.
This production, like “Hair,” also is not a masterpiece. But in this cases the flaws are easier to find.
Let’s start with the positive – that score! To make “Mamma Mia,” producers had to go through tons of Abba albums to find the hits to string together to form a plot and to keep the audience tapping their toes. “West Side Story” is perhaps one of the best written shows of all time with its own built-in hit parade: “Somewhere,” Tonight,” “Maria,” “America” and “Something’s Coming,” just to name a few.
Then you have Karen Olivo as Anita. She alone is worth the price of admission. She is more than a triple threat of actress, singer and dancer – she’s a smoky, powerful, sexy presence that brings all eyes to her every time she’s on stage. Whether center stage or background, Olivo is steaming hot and easily steals every scene she’s in. Whether it’s due to the great facial expressions she makes during the “America” number or her blood-curtailing scream in act two’s bar scene, Olivo might be dancing with a different Tony come this award season.
And then there’s the dancing. Moat often, when musicals are updated, they incorporate some modern dance into the mix, to have a broader appeal to the audience. But Director and writer Arthur Laurents knows that classics don’t need updating and he uses Jerome Robbins original chorography, which is still breathtaking and executed to perfection from its able-bodied staff, in particular Cody Green’s Riff.
On the downside, while he comes to grow on you, lead actor Matt Cavenaugh starts off more like he’s singing in a cabaret. While his voice is clear and beautiful, his first few songs sounded trite and insincere. He doesn’t come into his own until he sings “Tonight” with Josefina Scaglione’s Maria. Scaglione also seems to need to warm up before she shines. While always in beautiful voice, her acting seems stilted in her first few scenes but comes around as an actress towards the end of the first act.
Also not properly executed is the bilingual translation. It is a great idea to have Lin-Manuel Miranda translate songs into Spanish. But why just two? It seems so random. It might have made more sense if every time the Puerto Rican Sharks were alone, they’d sing in Spanish. But that isn’t the case.
And the show is assuming the audience is familiar with the story enough so that when Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish, the audience will know what’s she’s saying without supertitles (although the English lyrics are in the program.) Perhaps Spanglish might have been a good way to go.
But with those minor issues, “West Side Story” is a captivating show, reaching its pinnacle in the fantasy sequence of “Somewhere” which shows people of all sorts can live together in harmony. Sung and danced beautifully, this is a true moment of what theatre is all about.