But tell the truth: Who would you rather spend a couple hours with — a con man selling band instruments or rival gang members who rumble balletically to some of the most brilliant music ever written for the stage? "West Side Story" still has the cutting edge, no question about that.
The much-discussed revival, which opened in Washington in 2008 and went on to enjoy a good run in New York, is now at the Hippodrome.
While certainly reaffirming the audacious imagination and kinetic power of the work, this is not the most consistently impressive staging imaginable. It sometimes looks and sounds more like a good college venture than a major national tour.
The singing is spirited, but not quite stellar enough to unleash the full impact of Leonard Bernstein's score, with its ingenious fusion of gritty jazz and soaring operatic idioms. The dancing, based on the fabled Jerome Robbins choreography from 1957 (reproduced by Joey McKneely), could use a little more polish.
The revival has the imprimatur of no less than Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the musical and tweaked it for the return to Broadway (he was the director then, a duty taken over for the tour by David Saint).
Most of the attention has been on Laurents' decision to add a bilingual element. The characters on one side of this reimagining of the "Romeo and Juliet" story, the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girlfriends, now speak and sing occasionally in Spanish (in the vocal numbers, Lin-Manuel Miranda translated dialogue and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics).
The amount of Spanish was reduced after the 2009 New York opening, but what remains provides a flavorful addition that effectively underlines the gap between the Sharks and the white gang, the oh-so-cool Jets.
Other things done to give the show a contemporary makeover aren't as persausive. Do we really need so many bump-and-grind motions and even a bit of simulated masturbation to prove what adolescent jerks some of these guys are?
That said, there are highly effective elements in the production. I particularly love the blinding light during the "Somewhere" dream sequence, bringing the audience into the vision of a world where people put their differences aside.
The original ending has been tellingly refashioned by Laurents to heighten the tragedy. Here, the harmonic tension in the music as the curtain falls — a bass note that refuses to align with the last chord — fits perfectly with the unresolved tensions onstage.
James Youmans' unfussy set design, subtly lit by Howell Binkley, provides a good deal of atmosphere and enables the action to flow smoothly. David C. Woolard's costumes deliberately avoid "Grease"-like touches to point out how street gangs and bigotry didn't end in the '50s. John O'Neill gets an expressive sound from the 20 or so musicians in the pit.
As Tony, Kyle Harris looks a little too squeaky-clean, perhaps. With an unsteady top register, he can't nail all of the music, but he's a very persuasive actor. Ali Ewoldt brings out the young and innocent quality of Maria and handles the emotional peaks of the second act strongly enough, but her thin soprano can turn rather grating.
With her vibrant acting and singing, Michelle Aravena lights up the place as Anita (the role will change hands a couple times during the Hippodrome run). Joseph J. Simeone does winning work as Riff, and German Santiago captures the sexy and menacing sides of Bernardo neatly.
Alexandra Frohlinger fleshes out the role of the super-tomboy called Anybodys. And John O'Creagh manages to add some nuance to Doc, one of the four thinly drawn adult characters in the show.
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If you go
"West Side Story" runs through April 24 at the Hippodrome. $22-$77. Call 410-547-7328 or go to broadwayacrossamerica.com