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Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

West Side Story

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West Side Story
The West Side Story male ensemble
Today's question for consideration: is a merely adequate professional tour of West Side Story better than no tour at all?

Clearly, West Side Story is a classic and one that demands to be seen.  It has some natural appeal: a book based on Romeo and Juliet whose issues of belonging, being part of, and being different from potentially still resonate with today's youth; the most tuneful score that Leonard Bernstein ever wrote; exciting choreography by Jerome Robbins (here reproduced by Joe McKneely); and youthful energy to spare.  The show is done and redone in high school but not so often produced professionally, as it requires a triple-threat (dancing, acting, singing) young cast.

The current tour, playing through Sunday at San Diego's Civic Theatre, is short on recognizable names, but that's not the problem.  The main problem is that it's dull.

Given that not a lot of triple-threats are out there, compromises must be made.  In this production, the creative team cast the performers mostly for their ability to dance, and this choice pays off in a staggering degree of male dance energy leaping and bounding its way across the stage (there are fine women dancers, too, but the men are the star attraction here).   At the opening night performance there were moments when one could have wished that the dancers had tuned up the show a bit more in class, but mostly they executed the choreography as a unit and the result was beautiful.

When the dancing stopped, however, things ground to a halt.  The ensemble's acting was by the numbers and the singing was worse (not at all helped by the local execution of a sound design by Dan Moses Schreier that made the ensemble appear to be singing in the shower in the next apartment).  When "Gee, Officer Krupke" isn't funny you know something's terribly wrong.

The Broadway version of this revival cast an opera singer as Maria and a Broadway veteran as Tony, and critics complained that their voices didn't match well.  In the tour, Maria is played by Ali Ewoldt, who is best known for having played Cosette in Les Mis, and Tony is newcomer Kyle Harris.  Ms. Ewoldt has a nice voice that can ring on the high notes and a pleasant manner.  She is a fine, albeit bland, Maria.  Mr. Harris uses a pop style and needs to shift to his head voice to tackle the high notes.  He does so well but at a sacrifice of resonance in this most operatic of roles.  As Anita, Broadway veteran Michelle Aravena works hard, albeit in vain, to enliven things.

There has been considerable controversy over Broadway director Arthur Laurents' decision to have the Puerto Rican characters speak and sing in Spanish, and at the early performance I saw a couple of years ago there was considerably more Spanish being spoken than in this production.  Over time (and, perhaps, credit tour director David Saint for this change) the Spanish now blends with English and "Spanglish" so that audiences can follow the gist without having any ability in Spanish.  In a town where Spanish is spoken and heard frequently, the audience was sometimes laughing at the Spanish-language jokes.  And "I Feel Pretty," which was originally sung entirely in a Spanish translation by Lin-Manuel Miranda, now performs with only the middle verse in Spanish.

With the ubiquity of heavily manufactured productions of show tunes featured in the television show "Glee," it is perhaps no wonder that live productions of West Side Story might suffer by comparison.  Still, even though both shows focus on issues of importance to adolescents, it is sad to see such a classic pale by comparison in young people's eyes.  This tour may sell well (it certainly did here), but it's a shame that the production isn't a better one.

Performances January 4-9, 2011, at the Civic Theatre in downtown San Diego.  Tickets ($20 - $146.50) available by calling 619.570.1100, or Ticketmaster, at Ticketmaster 800.982.2787, or online at Ticketmaster. For more information on the tour, visit www.broadwaywestsidestory.com.

Broadway San Diego presents West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely.  Directed by David Saint from Broadway direction by Arthur Laurents, with scenic designs by James Youmans, costumes by David C. Woolard, lighting by Howell Binkley, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, and hair by Mark Adam Rampmeyer.

The cast includes Kyle Harris as Tony, Ali Ewoldt as Maria, Michelle Aravena as Anita, Joseph J. Simeone as Riff and German Santiago as Bernardo. Also featured are Mike Boland as Krupke, Ryan Christopher Chotto as A-rab, Stephen DeRosa as Glad Hand, Drew Foster as Action, Alexandra Frohlinger as Anybodys, Jay Garcia as Chino, Grant Gustin as Baby John, Nathan Keen as Big Deal, Christopher Patrick Mullen as Schrank, John O'Creagh as Doc, Kyle Robinson as Diesel, Cary Tedder as Snowboy, along with Lauren Boyd, Alicia Charles, Beth Crandall, Dean Andre de Luna, Ted Ely, Lori Ann Ferreri, Ryan Ghysels, Tim Hausmann, Dea Julien, Daniel Kermidas, Kristen Paulicelli, Christie Portera, Erika Santillana, Kevin Santos, Michael Scirrotto, Jeffrey C. Sousa, Jessica Swesey, Kathryn Lin Terza and Kirstin Tucker.


Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie

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