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Chicago by John Olson

West Side Story
Drury Lane Theatre

The Cast
The Drury Lane has a restaurant adjacent to their theater—and a good one, too. I bet, though, that if the restaurant served a steak as unevenly cooked as the product their theater served up on opening night, many patrons would send it back to the kitchen for additional preparation. Director Rachel Rockwell's West Side Story has the ingredients for a very good production of the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents classic, but on opening night the cast seemed simply insufficiently rehearsed.

The troubles began right away with a "Prologue" in which the dancers seemed a little tentative in executing the difficult choreography by Rhett Guter, who also plays Riff. More significant is that the men lack the street-wise swagger that Robbins' built into his landmark dances for the young gang members. This is reflective of the general failure of the men playing the Jets and Sharks to communicate the stakes of this story. Arthur Laurents' libretto, which expertly transposed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of mid-20th century New York, made clear that the gang members struggle with poverty and crime even as they swagger around their neighborhood with false bravado. Showing both these levels requires nuanced performances, but, with the exception of Adrian Aguilar who's a very convincing Action, they don't deliver.

Fortunately, the female leads were very much ready for opening night—beginning with Michelle Aravena who plays Anita, which was her role in the first national tour of the most recent Broadway revival. Aravena's Anita is everything we expect from the character—funny, fiery, spunky—yet in a package that's completely her own. Christina Nieves is a terrific Maria: a strong and independent young woman, who, while a romantic, remains in touch with reality. Nieves and Aravena are supported by strong performances by the actresses playing the friends of Maria and Aravena. Lillian Castillo is a very funny Rosalia, Anita's foil in "America," and, together with Rachel Marie LaPorte and Lauren Villegas, supports Nieves' Maria nicely in "I Feel Pretty."

The guys? Not so much. The usually fine Rhett Guter is a too-smooth Riff, with a nearly operatic bass that might have served Bernstein's Deutsche Gramophone operatic recording better than a stage production. Jim DeSelm, who has the right look for Tony and who's been warmly received in local productions of Parade and The Last Five Years, seems vocally uncomfortable in the role. His tonal quality varies, sometimes using an annoying vibrato and having some intonation problems in the upper register. In his first two scenes, I was optimistic he might be the first Tony I've ever seen that would make me believe he was once a gang member. There is a certain deliberate coarseness in his personality that feels streetwise. But that quality disappears the more love struck his Tony becomes, and DeSelm falls into familiar Tony territory for the rest of the show. Both DeSelm and Guter are inconsistent in their attempts at New York accents. A better New York accent, albeit an accent one might hear on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or from a network television newscaster, is delivered by Lucas Segovia as Bernardo. Segovia can at least be credited with consistency. To be sure, Laurents' script suggests Bernardo has been away from Puerto Rico longer than the other Sharks and might easily have lost some of his accent. But if Bernardo's complete lack of a Puerto Rican Spanish accent was an artistic choice, I'd argue it was a bad one. Language—accents here, but actual speaking of Spanish in Laurents' Broadway revival—is a key way in which the differences and barriers between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the northern-European Jets are highlighted. Making Bernardo seem too assimilated makes the tension less evident.

Going into act two, where the motivations are more clearly defined, the production is on firmer ground. The "Somewhere" ballet, with more traditional dance moves not requiring a street-smart edge, is nicely executed. And in the final scenes, where matters of life and death are stark, they are convincingly communicated by the actors, leading up to a truly chilling final monologue by Nieves' Maria.

Certainly, many of the problems that made opening night look so rough will iron themselves out in short order—the out of sync light cues, notes missed by the pit musicians, and Aguilar's singing a verse of "Gee, Officer Krupke" two beats ahead of the orchestra conducted by Ben Johnson. And, while we're talking orchestra, doing West Side Story with just a nine-piece pit band is asking for disappointment from die-hard fans who grew up on the movie soundtrack or have heard its symphonic dances in many a symphony pops concert. To my mind, doing West Side Story with fewer than 20 in the pit is like doing it without an Anita. If Bernstein's music isn't performed as stunningly as we might like, the cast's articulation of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics is crystal clear sometimes at the expense of character. Would Tony really nail those final consonants so crisply?

One can also hope that Ms. Rockwell, who's developed a reputation for bringing classics to life without self-indulgent concepts, will dispose of one such directorial flourish here. As Tony finishes "Something's Coming," where he sings of the something good that he's certain will come into his life soon, Rockwell puts a spotlight on Maria. Not in place for the next scene in which she's introduced, but apart from it. All by herself, without any setting or context, as if Rockwell is afraid we won't get the idea that the something good that is on its way is Maria. Really?

Most importantly, though, the young men in this cast need to internalize the stakes of this story and make the audience feel them. The gang members they play are guys trying to survive in a dangerous world where the odds are against them. They have to deal with peer pressure and expectations of masculinity that put them in a jeopardy the women don't have to face. The gang members might die. These are dangers Laurents understood as well as Shakespeare did and they're sadly more common today than they were when West Side Story debuted in 1957. Each West Side Story cast has an obligation to make it as urgent and real as it was back then. To assume an audience knows all that just because the piece is a classic is to reduce it to irrelevancy, and making West Side Story (and by extension, even Shakespeare) irrelevant is a terrible thing to do.

West Side Story will play the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, through March 29, 2015. For more information or tickets, visit or call 630-530-0111

Photos: Brett Beiner

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-- John Olson

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