I spent both of the last two evenings crying while actors sang love songs on stage. It was marvelous. Luckily on both occasions my companion(s) were tolerant of the waterworks and realized they were actually indicative of what a wonderful time I was having.
Monday night I saw the new revival of West Side Story, which is currently in previews at the Palace Theater. Arthur Laurents, at the age of 91, is doing a revival of his own show that goes in a totally new direction- the Puerto Rican characters speak and sing in Spanish. At first I found the scenes that were almost entirely in Spanish, like an argument between Anita and Bernardo, jarring and confusing. Subtitles were deemed a distraction so if you don’t speak Spanish you can only guess at exactly what’s being said. I didn’t begin to really appreciate how powerful the contrast between the languages could be until Anita and Maria sang A Boy Like That/I Have a Love. When Maria breaks into English the audience feels that she’s embracing Tony and the country he’s part of, but also that she’s painfully breaking from her own. The music is even more powerful, especially through the voices of these two truly phenomenal actresses- JOSEFINA SCAGLIONE and KAREN OLIVO.
The final scene after Tony has been killed, in which Maria threatens to kill herself and members of both gangs, feels raw and terrifying. She switches hysterically from English to Spanish and her pain and confusion is more clearly demonstrated through this mix of languages than it could possibly have been otherwise. I certainly recommend seeing this production, if possible see it before it officially opens.
As interesting and enjoyable as West Side Story was I will admit that it paled somewhat in comparison to South Pacific, which I saw last night at the Lincoln Center Theater. We arrived late (my fault; I mixed up the time) but were immediately swept away by the energy and talent of the performers. The theater is much smaller than the Palace and even from the balcony we had a fantastic view. Andrew Samonsky lives up to his character’s description (“You sexy Lieutenant!”). The relationship between him and Liat (Li Jun Li), though really the secondary romance of the musical, has more of a feeling of authenticity than I expected. These are two actors truly embodying their characters; they are both swept away by a love that seems to exist outside of reality. The feeling of bitterness and desire in the song ‘Happy Talk’ is amazing. I started crying then and kept on crying right through until the end of Act II.
Of course it was Kelli O’Hara (Nellie Forbush) and Paulo Szot (Emile de Becque) who made the show truly phenomenal. Since we missed the opening scene it took me some time to really feel the chemistry between them. My first impression of her was formed during ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,’ which she performed beautifully.
I can’t count how many times I’ve sung that song in the shower after a breakup; it is ingrained into my subconscious image of relationships. Her southern accent and his French accent were problematic for me at first; they felt inauthentic and distracted from the words being spoken. In song they appealed to me much more. When he sings ‘This Was Nearly Mine’ the irony is present to a degree that recalls Greek tragedy more than musical theater.
I was involved enough that I actually forgot there was a happy ending and was so swept away by it I was hysterical all the way through the curtain calls. If you have any positive associations with this musical see it now before this cast begin to leave the production.
Stay tuned for additions to this week’s roster of events and for my weekend post!