On a Tel Aviv Stage, 'West Side Story' Is as Thrilling and Relevant as Ever

A work of musical-theater genius – a rare mix of melodies, harmonies, rhythms and sweeping movement – gets a performance that overall is riveting.

Meshi Kleinstein and Ido Rozenberg play the leads in 'West Side Story.'
Ronen Akerman

Sixty years after it was written, “West Side Story” – a joint creation of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim – remains a thrilling and moving work of genius. That fact helps every production, because the work has the power, in its marvelous fusion of elements, to thrust director, choreographer, singers, actors and dancers to new heights. By the same token, it poses a challenge to creative artists to justify the work’s values. The Cameri Theater – with director Tsadi Tsarfati, choreographer Avichay Hacham, musical director Amir Lekner, soloists and chorus – has met that challenge for the most part successfully. It’s definitely a victory, albeit by points – not a knockout.

Everyone knows that “West Side Story” is a musical version of “Romeo and Juliet” set in the urban conditions of New York City 60 years ago (the Cameri production does not try to update the plot). It’s about a feud between the Polish-American Jets (see under: Ashkenazim) and the Puerto Rican Sharks (their Mizrahim), tinged with all the hues of racism – familiar materials in present-day Israel. It’s also, as this production emphasizes, about young people who are quick to kill, and that also strikes a contemporary chord (in the emotional outburst of Shlomo Vishinsky, as Doc, perhaps a bit overdone at the start, but heartrending in the end). But the true protagonist of this production is first and foremost the musical theater itself, as the lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, wrote.

The star is Bernstein’s music, which despite its familiarity remains fresh, surprising, extraordinarily complex rhythmically and harmonically, and amazingly modern. It impels the emotions in the plot and charges the stage and the spectators with energy that’s simultaneously pent-up and bursting. Its chief partner is the dancing, stamped with the genius of Jerome Robbins, familiar but always astonishing, and the opening dance performed by the Jets and the Sharks is – even if the choreographer has redesigned the movement – enthralling. One of the most marvelous moments of the musical is the dreamlike, poetic ballet, disconnected from the stage reality, that takes place in the second act at a tremendously fraught, tense moment in terms of the plot, which mocks all the rules of stage entertainment and breaks the heart.

The Tony and Maria of this production are a great plus. Ido Rozenberg sings, moves and acts compellingly, and carries the audience with him in his two consecutive songs at the start, “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.” He is credible and moving even in some manically exaggerated moments (maybe because of first-night excitement, which at times hurtled the performance into near-hysteria). It’s just a pity that his hairpiece, so flagrant in its artificial foreignness, spoils the effect somewhat.

The voice of Meshi Kleinstein, who plays Maria, is touching in its fragile clarity. There is also something magical about her being a young, throbbing “discovery,” fresh and even a bit immature, with her extra-stage story (30 years ago I saw the premiere performance of her mother, Rita, in “My Fair Lady,” so it’s only appropriate that I should now see her daughter’s premiere in “West Side Story”). True, things are less impressive when she is called on to act, though in her defense it should be said that all the characters in the musical, hers especially, are one-dimensional and serve the totality, not necessarily the drama. Her acting shows unprocessed “Israeliness,” which at times also infects Rona-Lee Shimon, who dances wonderfully in the part of Anita and brings tremendous power to the stage, notably in the brutal rape scene in the second act. Still, in two crucial duets – “Somewhere” with Tony, and especially “A Boy Like That” with Anita – Kleinstein succeeds in living the situation and singing it admirably.

Urban reality

The stage design, by Eran Atzmon, creates a grim urban reality with graffiti-covered brown-and-gray brick walls and high barbed-wire fences. However, I found it too clumsy: The walls that move on axes generate a disquieting carelessness of theatrical activity, not necessarily urban neglect. The lighting, by Keren Granek, generates a few genuinely lovely moments.

Overall, what troubled me was a certain imbalance between the level of the singing and dancing, and a type of general enthusiasm in regard to the acting, which comes across as an exaggerated style or a lack of control and discipline. This is noticeable also in a type of clipped speech, which sounds artificial (for example, in the performance of Yiftach Mizrahi as Riff). There are too many places where the superb characterization of a strong role (such as Oded Leopold as Detective Schrank) is swept into crude exaggeration. That’s a shame, because his part is significant in terms of the racism that hovers in the background of the plot. In a way, this character is the prototype of Donald Trump.

The entire cast – girls and boys, Americans and Puerto Ricans – displays potent energy and high quality. The dance numbers, in all their styles, just carry you away. But why get bogged down in details when overall I sat there for two and a half hours, amazed at the amount of talent and all in all – the truth – enjoyed myself.

Performances of “West Side Story” at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, with English subtitles: March 19, 26 and 31; April 2, 16 (two shows) and 23.