Archive for Wednesday, April 25, 1990

DRAWS AUDIENCE IN

April 25, 1990

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After 32 years, "West Side Story" has preserved a great deal of its beauty and power, even in the face of uneven productions.

A touring production of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical appeared Tuesday night in hot Hoch Auditorium. It was the last performance in the 1989-90 Concert Series.

Obviously, events over the last three decades have made the plot seem quaint. Tony, a leader in the Italian and Polish Jets gang in Manhattan's West Side, falls in love with Maria, whose brother leads the Puerto Rican Sharks. The tensions swirl around the gangs' adolescent energy as it becomes more and more focused on racism and turf wars.

TODAY'S GANGS, such as the drug-dealing syndicates from Los Angeles or the urban terrorists that operated on West Side streets in the 1970s and early '80s, make these two groups pale in comparison. The show just isn't all that relevant anymore.

Fortunately, the spare, elegant book by Arthur Laurents holds up. The story, taken from "Romeo and Juliet," is timeless.

And the music and the dancing, recreated for the Tuesday production from Jerome Robbins' original, create a romantic netherworld that draws an audience in. The Bernstein score, one of the finest written for the post-World War II theater, is truly a melodic wonder.

And the dancing is organic to the script; it creates a seamless emotional fabric for this musical tragedy. Audiences need to know there was a time when you didn't have to destroy Paris or dress your actors in cloying cat costumes to make a beautiful musical.

THE YOUNG cast of the Music Theatre Associates production handles the dances with aplomb, despite the limited stage space they worked in. The dancers deliver something of the flavor of the original Robbins dances.

But their singing wasn't up to their dancing. The male chorus was off the mark, especially early on they made the Jets signature song sound like a durge. Both men and women had difficulty getting across the clever Sondheim lyrics.

They weren't helped by a sound system geared more for drive-in movies than the live, human voice. Occasionally, an actor would thump his chest mike during a dance, sending non-musical explosions of sound through Hoch.

And the tinny tour orchestra flattened the score. One hopes the audience knew the score already, through the enhanced original cast recording.

INDIVIDUALS from the cast did stand out. Christina Pierro brought spirit and a fine voice to Maria, and Johnny Martinez was also strong as her brother, Bernardo. Patrick Boyd, playing Tony, has an ingratiating presence and a good voice, but he came off as a little too preppy for the role. In fact, the costumes for the Jets looked like they'd been ordered out of the L.L. Bean catalog.

All that aside, "West Side Story" still can take the stage, and many in the audience Tuesday night were visibly and audibly moved. It's great to see productions of this musical, which is part of our theatrical culture.

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