Riff, Bernardo, Anita, Tony. The Sharks and the Jets. Tonight, America, I Feel Pretty. Maria.
We know the names, we know the songs, we love the dancing. West Side Story is the epitome of American musical theater. The show originally premiered in 1957, and this March it saw its first revival in more than three decades with a few new tricks up its sleeve.
The spine-tingling fight scene that kicks off the musical is a sure sign of a dance-heavy hit—the characters are introduced with their moves first, then their voices. The Jets take the stage, and with the first loud snap by Riff (played by Bravo reality TV Step It Up and Dance winner Cody Green), you’re transported to the streets of New York City. The choreography of Jerome Robbins is exquisite and irreplaceable, so Joey McKneely, who restaged the dance numbers, paid homage to the great dancemaker by maintaining the classic look. Robbins’s balletic yet fierce choreography gives us hunched and prowling gangs who begin in sync, then spin off to their own personalities and fight styles. Green’s technical dexterity makes him a standout—his leaps levitate in air, his turns are spot on.
Karen Olivio as Anita is a showstopper. Playing a role that legend Chita Rivera created is no easy task, but Olivio amazes. With a deep, bold voice, and wild hips that toss around her ruffled dresses with panache, the leggy diva steals the spotlight at the high school Mamba dance. Olivio—who recently starred in the Broadway smash hit In the Heights—reveals her versatility as actress with both her funny and deeply emotional numbers: In America, she’s a brassy Puerto Rican who knows what she wants; in A Boy Like That (one of the two numbers which in this revival are sung entirely in Spanish), a protective sister to Maria.
Josefina Scaglione as Maria cannot go unmentioned. A beacon of light on the Broadway stage, the 21-year-old Argentine soprano has a heavenly voice that makes you fall in love with her while Tony (played by Grey Gardens’ Matt Cavenaugh) sings to her on her balcony, and marries her in the dress shop.
This modern day Romeo and Juliet raises issues that are far deeper than your typical happy song-and-dance show—racial rumbles, gang violence, rape. Sadly, those issues haven’t disappeared 52 years later, but perhaps that’s why the musical still speaks so strongly. And at a time when Broadway seems to be heading back to the days of shows packed with dance, this viewer is thrilled to see classic choreography come to life in a contemporary way from a cast with soaring potential.
Emily Macel is an associate editor at Dance Magazine.