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West Side Story
North Carolina School of the Arts at Ravinia Festival

Also see John's review of It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!

West Side Story
Katharine Elkington and Jordan Brown
Though I'm hardly complaining, it seems the Ravinia Festival (and its fans) can't get enough Sondheim. Their "Sondheim 75" series of five staged productions over five years officially ended two years ago, so they've followed up with two shows by different composers yet with lyrics by Sondheim. Last year's Gypsy marked the first time Patti LuPone took on the role of Rose, a part she'll be performing in New York next month. On June 7 and 8 of this year, they presented West Side Story.

Depending on how you look at it, they had either the nerve or the generosity to bring in a production from the North Carolina School of the Arts right into the hotbed of musical theater education that is the Chicago area. There's good reason, though. The production was directed by the Dean of NCSA's School of Drama, Gerald Freedman, Jerome Robbins' assistant director for the original Broadway production. According to Carol Lawrence, the Maria of that production who spoke in a panel discussion before the performance, Freedman was the man who really coached the actors in the book scenes. ("Mr. Robbins knew nothing about (acting)," she confided.) This being the 50th anniversary year of West Side Story, what could be more appropriate than having a production directed by someone so connected to the original? Not only that, the production's musical director and conductor (and Chancellor of the School), was John Mauceri, an assistant to West Side Story composer, Leonard Bernstein for 18 years.

The cast of college students (and believe it or not, a few high school students) was as good as many a professional cast you might see, but larger than any you're likely to find on a professional stage. With a larger ensemble than was used in the original Broadway production, and an on-stage orchestra of 37, there was enough critical mass and technical skill to give the great Bernstein score its due. The massive Ravinia stage was filled with singer/dancer/actors and musicians. The orchestra, upstage and partly obscured by Howard Jones' set, was a key player but never a distraction. The cast handled the original Robbins choreography (re-created by Kevin Backstrom) with the agility of dancers their age and the confidence of dancers much older.

Their Tony was Jordan Brown, a college senior from Kansas City with boy-band good looks but a more powerful voice. He slipped in and out of a New York accent, but gave the part a boyish innocence to which he fully committed. Though a bit wooden at times, he had a presence that kept focus on Tony, who, as the character who most grows and makes hard choices, is very much the central figure. His Maria, Katharine Elkington, was a bit bland in her characterization, but displayed a soprano worthy of the music. As Anita, Jenna Fakhoury lacked some of the comic skills we associate with the part but was convincingly intense in her act two grief and rage. Nathaniel Mendez gave an especially sensitive portrayal of Bernardo. As Riff, Ben Gunderson had a cockiness and danger that created all the more tension because of its incongruity with the All-American good looks (and curly hair) we remember from the movie's Riff, Russ Tamblyn. Wesley Taylor as Action delivered "Gee, Officer Krupke" like a complete pro.

As talented and technically competent in music and dance as students from nationally renowned college programs may be, they frequently lack the nuance and unexpected moments in their acting that would match their vocal and physical skills. This was the case in this performance as well, but under Freedman's direction, the cast delivered exceptional clarity of character motivation and a strong forward motion in the story. The orchestra's placement on stage made clear the immense importance of the conductor for this piece. With so much dance and incidental music driving its forward action, the conductor has much to do with the overall pacing and modulation of the performance. Though Mauceri certainly must know the piece well, he used some unexpected tempi at times, and especially early in the performance, a lack of nuance in volume that flattened out the music to a degree.

In its writing, West Side Story just might be perfect, though the authors and choreographer may have created a piece that is impossible to perform perfectly. It requires youthful singers with operatic abilities who can deliver in a manner that will not seem ill suited to musical theater and who can perform ballet as well (Carol Lawrence also revealed before the show that Robbins had not believed she and Larry Kert could handle the dances and had planned to cast a "Dance Tony" and "Dance Maria" until he was convinced differently). Additionally, it needs an orchestra that can deliver a symphonic quality performance of a ridiculously difficult score.

If this production was not complete perfection, it was, in its size, in the maturity of its musical and dance performances, and in the age appropriateness of its cast, an exceptional and most satisfying opportunity to see this classic performed on stage.

West Side Story was performed at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL on June 8, 2007 (after a public dress rehearsal on June 7, 2007).


Photo: Russell Jenkins/Ravinia Festival

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-- John Olson



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