When West Side Story debuted in 1957 it combined dance, song, drama, and design to form a cohesive modern masterpiece at a level never before achieved. It moved American musical theater forward and set a standard that has seldom, if ever, been reached since. The major artistic groups in the city of Dayton, Ohio have likewise combined their talents and resources to present a fresh and energetic production of this classic show.
West Side Story, of course, is an updated retelling of Romeo & Juliet, setting the story in 1950s New York with the conflict existing between warring gangs, the "American" Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Former Jet leader Tony falls in love with the Maria, sister of the leader of the Sharks. The musical was originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Broadway legend Jerome Robbins. West Side Story also boasts a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by (a then young) Stephen Sondheim. With wonderful songs, a powerful and emotional plot, and extensive and unique dance sequences, it was ground breaking and is still considered the example of excellence for musical theater by many.
In Dayton, interesting partnerships and new elements have been created to bring this classic tale a fresh look, while also retaining its magnificence. This West Side Story is unique first in regard to who is producing the show. This mounting is a collaborative effort of many of the major arts companies in the area. The Human Race Theatre Company, along with the Victoria Theatre Association and the Dayton Ballet, have combined with other organizations to provide resources that no one group could obtain alone. Twenty dancers from the ballet share the stage with students from Wright State University, several resident actors from Human Race, and a small group of New York performers appearing in many of the principal roles. The conductor from the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra serves as Musical Director. In addition, the choreography by Robbins that is typically used in productions of the musical has been replaced by new original dances created for Dayton, and a new design concept is also in use.
Scott Stoney is an artist-in-residence with Human Race Theatre and serves as director of the show. He effectively guides his cast and captures the dramatic pulse of the piece well. Stephen Mills of Ballet Austin takes on the unenviable task of supplanting Robbins' choreography with his own. Mills uses the professional ballet dancers at his disposal to great effect, and has created complex and strikingly beautiful pieces for them. The choreography often (and smartly) hints at the original moves, and is highlighted in "The Dance At The Gym", "Cool", and "Somewhere". It is only during the opening "Prologue" that the new work suffers in comparison to that by Robbins.
The stage at the Victoria Theatre is small in width. Therefore, the set design uses the depth and height of the performance area to offset the narrow side to side space. Multiple layers and levels exist and are utilized well. Dayton native Dick Block clearly captures the time, place, and mood of the musical with his work. The design is very realistic, with steel and brick three-dimensional pieces, a prominent metal fence, and several sets that slide in and out when required. Costumes by Lowell Mathwich and lighting by John Rensel are both appropriate and attractive. Despite some small problems with microphones at the beginning of the performance, Lindsay Jones' sound design is professional and features some nice echo effects.
The cooperation of the various arts organizations has brought the best performers from many venues together for West Side Story. As Maria, New York actress Elizabeth Cherry is wonderful. She convincingly displays the innocence, romance, and despair required for the role and sings beautifully. Mark Ledbetter tackles the challenging vocals of Tony and does very well with only a few small exceptions. This production is lucky to have Broadway actress JoAnn Hunter as Anita. She has taken a leave of absence from the Broadway revival of Kiss Me Kate to perform here and delivers a spirited and top-notch performance. As Riff, the leader of the Jets, David Patrick Ford sings and acts quite well. In the supporting roles of Bernardo and Action, Dayton Ballet company members Sasha Janes and Justin Gibbs also shine. The ensemble is a combination of Dayton Ballet dancers, Wright State University theater students, local theater professionals, and Human Race actors. Due to the joint collaboration, this production has strong dancers, singers, and actors dispersed in the appropriate roles, and the result a wonderful display of talent on all levels. Musical Director Neal Gittleman, the conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, energetically leads a talented 17-member orchestra in producing a full and crisp sound.
The current production of West Side Story playing
at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton is a proud testament to the benefits of
collaborative theatrical efforts in one city. The show brings together
the best talents of many arts organizations, along with new ideas, and the
result is both satisfying and successful. The show continues through
April 15, 2001 and tickets can be ordered by calling (937) 228-3630.
-- Scott Cain