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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, West Side Story

Also see Elizabeth's reviews of Arlecchino: servant of two masters and The God of Hell

West Side Story
Jodi Carmeli and Dieter Bierbrauer
Merging Romeo and Juliet with New York gang warfare in a musical setting was initially a tough sell in the 1950s. West Side Story went through a number of permutations before arriving on stage in 1957 to thunderous applause. And now, half a century later, one word best describes the show:

Classic.

As the new production at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre proves, West Side Story is a timeless tale about the intensity of passion, the danger of being unable to communicate, and loved that is doomed from the start.

It always helps to have good story bones. Shakespeare provides West Side Story some of the best. Though updated by book writer Arthur Laurents for the new time and locale, and given a few twists along the way, West Side Story follows the basics to a T: A young man and a young woman from opposite sides of a turf war fall in love and vow to stay together forever.

Now add a brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein and the effortlessly intricate lyrics of Stephen Sondheim – most of the songs here have entered the American songbook – and you have a show that could endure as long as Shakespeare’s original play.

Wisely, director Michael Brindisi keeps his efforts close to the source material. His work, along with the efforts of the large and talented cast, keeps the jazzy energy of the material flowing from the first scene of the Jets snapping their fingers in time to Bernstein’s overture to the final, heartbreaking image of the Jets and Sharks finally finding unity in tragedy.

Two talented performers take on the thrilling, if somewhat daunting, roles as the updated star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria. Fresh-faced Dieter Bierbrauer plays Tony with wide-eyed innocence and naïve charm. His sparkling tenor breathes fresh life into his every scene, while Jodi Carmeli – whose credits include a stint as performance artist Maureen in the Broadway production of Rent – brings her own type of innocence to her role. The two share one of the show’s signature moments, a re-envisioned balcony scene set to the familiar strains of “Tonight”; Bierbrauer and Carmeli trade lyrics until they seem to sing with one voice. It’s a gorgeous moment – both for just the sheer artistry of their performances, and also for what it means to the characters. In a few minutes together, Tony and Maria know they are meant for each other - even if their relationship is fated to last a single day.

The balance of the cast also give fine performances, led by Tony Vierling as Jets leader Riff and Julianne Mundale as Maria’s brother's girl Anita. The ensemble has plenty of chances to show their considerable chops, including such classic moments as “Jet Song,” “America,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”

West Side Story also showcases dance, and choreographer Tamara Kangas makes use of the jazzy score for a number of brilliant moments, from the opening montage of the rival gangs dancing through their shared turf to the actual dance at the gym with its pulse pounding mambo.

It’s no surprise that Chanhassen has returned to the fertile shores of West Side Story (this the third production the theater has hosted). Not only are the rousing score and beautiful love songs crowd pleasers, but the material provides an opportunity to do truly exciting theater. Kudos to Chanhassen for doing that with this production.

West Side Story runs through March at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, located at 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen. For more information and tickets, call 952-934-1525 or visit the Web at www.chanhassentheatres.com.


Photo: Act One, Too


- Ed Huyck



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