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Chicago by John Olson

West Side Story
Cadillac Palace Theatre

West Side Story
Ali Ewoldt and Kyle Harris
Arthur Laurents promised us a more realistic West Side Story with his 2009 Broadway revival now on tour across North America, and in the hands of director David Saint, whom Laurents chose to re-stage his direction for the tour, the production delivers one. Not in a flashy way, and not so much because of the use of Spanish in large chunks of dialogue and the three lyrics translated by Lin-Manuel Miranda from Stephen Sondheim's lyrics. It's the way this production is willing to show the kids as flawed, rather than the dreamily star-crossed lovers of source material Romeo and Juliet or the West Side Story movie version with its drop-dead gorgeous stars. Here, Tony (Kyle Harris) is a little awkward and na´ve, Riff (Joseph J. Simeone) a genuine street tough, Bernardo (German Santiago) an angry young man, and Maria (Ali Ewoldt) a sweet but immature teen. We can totally believe the intensity of Tony and Maria's attraction to each other—not because of their iconic representation of the greatest pair of lovers in literature, but as two impressionable, impulsive kids who see in each other a way out of their dysfunctional worlds and fall for each other too quickly and easily. The Sharks, Jets and their girls are dangerous, even as they're victims of a violent and perilous environment. Oh, the classic music and iconic dances of Jerome Robbins are still there—and an 18-piece pit orchestra does well by musical theater standards, only suffering at times by comparison to the symphony orchestras we've heard perform the Leonard Bernstein score.

What's different is that Laurents' book, as he revised it slightly for this production, stands out in greater relief than usual from the show's music and dance elements. It works as a play with a believable story about urban teens in a treacherous environment, much like the social realist movies and plays written in the 1950s that dealt with the same subject. He took out some of the cute jargon he originally used in the libretto and expanded some scenes. We now learn that the dance at the gym is apparently held at a Catholic school, when Glad Hand encourages abstinence and discourages dirty dancing. It makes sense that the Church would have wanted to reconcile its members, as the presumably Irish and Italian-American whites as well as the Latinos would likely be predominately Catholic.

Saint's young cast reads as age appropriate and has a good handle on their characters, but at times they tend toward the pushy and presentational, rather than giving more naturalistic performances that would better support the goal of realism. It might feel more organic if the gang members had more spontaneity, overlapping their lines and tossing them off more casually rather than trying to land every one of them. Maybe they were a little ragged in the 90 degree plus heat and who could blame them for that? Not ragged though, was their expert execution of the Robbins dances, "reproduced" here by Joey McKneely.

With a few important exceptions, the vocal performances were solid. Ali Ewoldt as Maria has a lilting soprano that was perfectly up to the task, and Michelle Aravena sings and performs Anita in a manner respectful of the legendary Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno before her. The male leads both seem to have good voices, but struggle a bit to find the appropriate styling. Harris tries to give Tony a youthful timbre—appropriate for the character but not always compatible with the vocal demands of the role, plus he is physically static during his solos and his "Something's Coming" is less hopeful and energizing than we're used to hearing. (Then again, this is a darker take on the material). Simeone as Riff mixes up some powerful vocals with speak-singing and low-register grumbling into a stew that doesn't make for the most pleasing listening possible. The solo in "Somewhere" is now given to Alexandra Frohlinger as Anybodys. She has a clear-as-a bell musical theater voice, but brassier than the operatic sopranos that have so frequently done the song.

The production's ability to make us believe the characters and situations also owes much to the sensitive and stereotype-avoidant portrayals of the adults by John O'Creagh as Doc, Christopher Patrick Mullen as the tough Lt. Schrank, and Mike Boland as Officer Krupke. More stereotypical is the performance of veteran Broadway character actor Stephen DeRosa, who camps it up heavily as the social worker, Glad Hand—making him way more gay than usual.

The production values are terrific, with James Youmans' sets, dominated by a backdrop depicting the West Side Highway, establishing the gritty environment cleanly, but with a little more glitz than previous tours have provided. His design for the rumble, under the highway and played entirely behind a chain-link fence, is especially effective. David Woolard has toned down the costumes to be earthy and realistic enough to never be parodied in a Gap commercial.

This tour has reportedly been tinkering with the use of Spanish, as did the Broadway production. I'm still not sure they got it right, as the Sharks still vacillate between languages with no apparent reason. The language barrier employed deliberately here emphasizes the otherness of the Puerto Ricans, even for those of us who generally know the meaning behind the dialogue and lyrics from repeated exposure to the show.

It can be so tough for those of us who grew up on this show to see it differently, but Laurents' vision as executed by Saint and team changes the focus just enough to give a reason, as if any were needed, to revisit West Side Story. A chance to see it with a large and age-appropriate, all-Equity cast, 18-piece orchestra and Broadway production values should never be passed up. A dramatic interpretation just different enough to make us reconnect with these tragic teens is an added bonus, and might just guide school and stock companies on how they present it in the future.

West Side Story will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through August 14, 2011. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com, Broadway in Chicago ticket offices, Ticketmaster outlets, or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit www.broadwaywestsidestory.com.


Photo: Joan Marcus

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-- John Olson



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