Music by Paul Simon. Book and lyrics by Paul Simon and Derek Walcott. Directed and choreographed by Mark Morris.

Renowned choreographer Mark Morris has taken a lot of flak from theater critics because his Broadway debut as a director, Paul Simon’s musical The Capeman about a 1959 gang murder, doesn’t have the effervescence and sweeping dances of, say, West Side Story. But longtime fans of the monumentally talented and flamboyantly gay Morris’s work in dance and opera may take a different view.

For one thing, The Capeman isn’t a mythological love story like West Side Story. The main character, Salvador Agron, is seen at three ages: a dreamy 7-year-old mama’s boy in Puerto Rico, a sullen impressionable teenage illiterate lured into proving his manhood with an impulsive act of gang warfare, and a thirtysomething older-and-wiser ex-con. The musical asks: who am I? How do I understand these layers of myself? Am I locked into a destiny, or is redemption possible? (HIV-positives whom protease inhibitors have given “a new lease on life” may feel a similar dislocation of self.) This is unusually somber, philosophical, at times static material for a Broadway musical.

Yet Morris respects the material by not trying to make it into something else. He doesn’t make characters dance who shouldn’t dance. Charismatic salsa star Ruben Blades cramps his natural grace to truthfully portray a man who’s spent the best years of his life in a cell rather than a dancefloor. However, when Puerto Rican teens flirt through “Satin Summer Nights” or slow-dance to the jukebox in “Quality,” Morris displays the witty flair for vernacular dance he’s shown in dances to pop music (Going Away Party) and in his comic take on The Nutcracker (The Hard Nut). And he brings to Broadway the practically forbidden virtues of understatement and restraint. The Capeman is all about Paul Simon’s gorgeous score. Music this good hasn’t been so simply and beautifully performed on Broadway since the advent of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s overamplified monstrosities. Blessed by the limpid central performances of Blades, Marc Anthony as the younger Sal, and Ednita Nazerio as his mother (Latino superstars all), The Capeman is, despite what you may have heard, an underrated work of art.

The Advocate, unpublished

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