We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today: Sam Brooks reviews the West Side Story touring blockbuster spectacle.
I consider myself a big fan of musicals. I listen to them more than your average homosexual, I try and see a few every year, and I wish I had the physical dexterity or musical acumen to perform in them. I’m the kind of person who watches the Tony Awards, then re-watches the performances and makes friends watch them too.
Despite this, I have no memory or association with West Side Story. I’ve definitely seen the film so I know the plot as a very very loose Romeo and Juliet, and I remember Rita Moreno being amazing in it. But I could not name you a single song from it. The one song I thought I knew from it was ‘Kids in America’, which is of course not a song from a 1960s musical but a Kim Wilde song from the early 80s, so I’m already on the back foot a little bit here.
The thing with musicals is that it actually helps if you have some previous association with the musical before you see it. Especially when it’s a super traditional production, like the current production of West Side Story at the Civic is. You’re not going because you want to be surprised or you want to be shocked; you want to see that same damn narrative performed by some really beautiful people doing some of the most stunning choreography to hit a Broadway stage. (If I’m not mistaken, the show has similar or identical choreography to Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the premiere 50 years ago.)
But even as someone who isn’t intimately familiar with West Side Story, I’m familiar with it as a cultural institution. It’s Romeo and Juliet but with songs and some simultaneously progressive and problematic opinions towards race! Instead of fighting, they dance! There’s lots of clicking in place of, I don’t know, guns? It’s an institution. If you messed with it there would be riots in the streets, or at least old people demanding refunds.
In that sense, I can imagine that this production of West Side Story is a raging success. It feels like watching the original Broadway show. This isn’t always a good thing – the acting feels like from another time and place entirely, and the plot of the show is like being stuck in a stalling car. Sometimes we’ll spend a good 10 minutes with the Jets (the white gang!) plotting the school dance, and then in the space of a single scene Maria goes from hating the man who shot her brother to falling in love with him and going to bed with him. It’s a musical, so you forgive a fair amount of narrative jankiness, but as a newcomer to the show it’s quite easy to step back and go, “Wait, what?”
But honestly, even as someone who doesn’t know the show, it’s fun as hell to watch. It’s a worn and tired observation, but we just don’t get to see this kind of theatre in New Zealand that often. It’s commercial theatre at its finest, theatre where you can almost see the dollar bills onstage. It’s theatre with 20 bodies onstage doing things that you think bodies shouldn’t be able to do, theatre with a full band in the pit, and theatre with a full goddamned set filling up The Civic. There are also genuine moments where the thing reaches offstage and into your gut; when Anita, the best character in the show, is menaced by the gang and a reprise of her song ‘America’ starts, it’s genuinely haunting and jarringly dark. Suddenly the show stops being about characters and starts being about a real person, and it’s all the better for it.
But a production like this is absolutely pitching to people who have some relationship with West Side Story already. It’s pitching to people who did it in high school maybe, or people who played ‘Somewhere’ over and over again on vinyl, or even people who watched the movie as a kid and loved it. It’s a museum piece, with all the pros and cons that might imply. If you want something new or something radical, then what you’re looking for is probably not West Side Story, in any production or configuration. But if you want your OG, traditional West Side Story with your rumbles and finger-snaps, then this is exactly what you want.
Verdict: If you love West Side Story, see it. If you’re an easy target for musicals, see it. If you want to feel envious of beautiful people with improbably moving bodies, see it. You can book your tickets right here!
Good or bad: Good, with the above caveats.
– Sam Brooks
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