News Column

"West Side Story" plays splendidly

November 24, 2013


Nov. 24--Tougher than ever and still with a love story that can break the heart, "West Side Story's" 2009 Broadway revival got an unveiling over the weekend as the opening attraction of the new touring season that will eventually include "Mama Mia," "Chicago," "The Addams Family" and "Million Dollar Quartet."

It is an auspicious, classy, and ultimately awesome opening to a season that is marred by limited bookings (only weekend performances as opposed to the weeklong outings the market had come to support) -- and mostly repeats.

"West Side Story," though, is a classic that deserves its acclaim. It made theater history in 1957 by making dance a part of musical drama and, again, made movie history with an innovative film version in 1961. In between, it is has been greatly maligned by endless amateur versions that proved, more than anything else, that singers are easier to find than dancers and if you don't have dancers, you shouldn't do this show.

Any production of "West Side Story" has to be judged on the merit of its dancers. The current touring company fares wonderfully in this category. Aggressive with choreography wonderfully re-created by Joey McKneely from the Jerome Robbins original, the Jets and Sharks move with an anger and a threat that was muted in the original. From the very opening, a lone New York gang member stands onstage with an ominous threat. We are warned to take this drama of gang warfare seriously this time.

He snaps his fingers and then all hell breaks loose as the Puerto Rican gang comes up against the Polish American gang, and switchblades eventually get involved. Yet again, the love story of Maria and Tony is played out, as adapted from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

The idea behind the Broadway revival four years ago was to "update" the classic -- an idea that seemed both superfluous and dangerous. Some of the songs are now sung partly in Spanish, to add a more "realistic" bent.

When the male dancers soar into the air with a jackknife kick, it is now an attack, not something just pretty to watch.

Most enhanced is a classical ballet added to the music of the plaintive ballad "Somewhere" in the second act. In addition to proving that the dancers can handle classical discipline as well as jazz, it brings up a question we never thought about until now. Did Leonard Bernstein borrow a little from Aaron Copland for his music? The music for this segment is markedly similar to the Americana sound of Copland. Maybe it's just my imagination.

In any case, a great boon to this wonderfully professional touring company is a full-sounded orchestra that handles the drama and bombast of the Bernstein score with a force seldom heard from an orchestra theater pit -- particularly the one in Chrysler Hall. Conducted by J. Michael Duff, the orchestrations are complex and full-blooded to the extent that the drama is greatly enhanced. A joy to hear. Not a synthesizer in the house.

Of the cast, the vocal range of Jarrad Green as Tony is impressive, from tenor to below. Green, refreshingly, has a boyish and vulnerable quality that is often lacking when it comes to casting Tony. When he sings of the joy of finding his love in "Maria," we believe him -- and cheer him on.

MaryJoanna Grisso is a fragile and lovely Maria, but thin of voice. Michelle Alves is the fiery spitfire needed to suggest Anita, a Latino woman, not a girl. She takes the number "America" and soars with it.

The new drama of police threat is most adeptly suggested by Skip Pipo's no-nonsense depiction of the neighborhood police lieutenant. This is the first time we've seen a "West Side" cop who is actually ready to take on these punks. Past productions always made him a foolish dupe.

Because it was originally set in the early '50s, there are those of us who are content to see it as a period piece. There is still a suspicion that this "redo" is little more than an excuse for a Broadway revival and tour, as if any reason were needed. The changes are minimal but noticeable. In any case, the score by Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is a joy that changed American theater forever. Arthur Laurents' original direction of this revival has been lovingly re-created by David Saint.

In a changing world, much of the neighborhood depicted was cleared to make way for Lincoln Center in New York years ago. Unfortunately, the combative spirit of street gangs has not changed but increased.

The settings are sparse, leaving plenty of stage room for the dancers (with Maria's "I Feel Pretty" number now staged in her room rather than the dress shop). Most effective is the ominous set for the rumble beneath a highway with the set slowly descending, like a threat.

A sobering factor is that this season's shows are played only on weekends in limited performances. Only three performances for "West Side," Friday and Saturday. This leaves no chance for word-of-mouth or reviews to play a role. It is a sad development for a theater market that has proved it can support four- and six-week runs. Local theater history was made when "Phantom of the Opera" set a new national record with a four-week booking that was considered, at the time, risky. The market has supported long runs of "The Lion King" and "Wicked."

Reverting to weekend bookings is not only sad, but it also is alarming. The programming of repeats like "Mama Mia" and "Chicago" is also not encouraging, particularly since Richmond got the innovative "War Horse."


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