Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Theatre review: "West Side Story" national tour.

A somewhat revised version of West Side Story is here for a few days. It’s a national tour of the 2009 much-praised Broadway production which ran for 22 months. Recently- departed Arthur Laurents directed his modification of his original 1957 script.If you haven’t seen any performance recently, you may be surprised by some of its intentionally darker moments. Whether or not they’ve always been there, I’m not certain. Still the essence of original concept remains intact.

Leonard Bernstein’s exciting, dramatic, stirring and beautiful music surges and soars throughout the experience, the best reason to be there. The superb playing comes from 14 local musicians plus three touring artists conducted by John O’Neill in new arrangements created by, among others, Stephen Sondheim. Most of the singing does it justice, despite a lack of any truly memorable voices.

Sondheim’s own 1957 often brilliant lyrics sparkle with clarity as sung by the capable cast. The dancing and the action look impressive in Joey McKneely’s sturdy choreography and tour director David Saint’s vigorous staging.

I found more solid drama in this than I expected, personified in the believable nastiness of two adult policemen. One is Lieutenant Schrank whom Laurents gave some depth, including compassion. Christopher Patrick Mullen plays both sides convincingly. Mike Boland equally makes Officer Krupke another memorable example of the oppressive adult world leaning on the confused young kids of the story. And you certainly get a sense from this cast of youth and vulnerability beneath the bravado. Moreover Laurents’ tale of juvenile gangs has as much resonance today as it did 54 years ago.

To add to the sense of reality, Laurents also got Lin- Manuel Miranda (he wrote In The Heights) to transform the Puerto Ricans’ dialogue and some lyrics into Spanish. This has become somewhat controversial, given that there are many audiences with limited or non-existent knowledge of Spanish and no subtitles or supertitles are used. But this is the U.S.’s second language now and the characters who speak would naturally do so, effectively, validly, making them look like a separate culture. But here it seems most like an unnecessary embellishment diminishing the story, being meaningful only to Spanish speakers.

Laurents and Saint have also made sure that tender moments between Tony and Maria have touching truth and they get a lot out of the humor in the only non-serious part, “Officer Krupke.”

Ali Ewolt’s acting as Maria constantly conveys believable, innocent sweetness but Kyle Harris’ Tony seems less well-defined. Her singing feels wrong, as if too operatic, even though parts of Bernstein’s score resemble opera, while he sings in a voice without enough personality.

The entire experience comes across as a fine team effort, with a meaningful sense of ensemble. It needn’t be some kind of star showcase. Plus, given Bernstein’s music, Sondheim’s words and Laurents’ script, this remarkable musical theatre lives on.

West Side Story continues through 6:30 pm Sunday May 22nd at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/ 456-6666 or

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