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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

An Electric 50th Anniversary West Side Story Dazzles at the 5th Avenue

West Side Story
The 5th Avenue Theatre's production marking the 50th anniversary of West Side Story is a handsome, faithful homage to the original, and, aside from a few creaky moments in the Laurents script, it never feels like a museum piece. Director Bill Berry elicits strong performances from the majority of his leading players, musical director Ian Eisendrath conducts a stellar and rich sounding orchestra and, most importantly, Bob Richards' choreography, recreating Robbins' original, is sizzlingly served up by a huge company of dancers, many of them from Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theatre which partnered with the 5th for this production. Richards' Jets and Sharks are in gear, and (to quote a Sondheim lyric) "their cylinders are clickin' " from the opening bars "The Prologue" through a sexually charged "Dance at the Gym," a red hot version of "Cool," and of course the tragedy tinged "Rumble."

Two of the happiest pieces of casting are in the pivotal roles of the story's R&J stand-ins, Tony and Maria. Louis Hobson, a frequent 5th Avenue leading man in the past several seasons, bid Seattle farewell with a robustly well sung, exuberant and honest performance as the Polish-American Tony. From his opening notes of the electric "Something's Coming" right through to the bittersweet deathbed reprise of "Somewhere," Hobson nails his songs, and he is very well matched by Maegan McConnell's Maria, who charms thoroughly in her vocals and handles the transition from the guileless, giddy ingenue of act one to the young woman who has been forced to grow up all too suddenly through the tragedies of losing both her lover and her brother. Hobson and McConnell are nowhere more moving than in the full rendition of "Somewhere" in the act two dream ballet, and kudos to Berry and Eisendrath for realizing this song is ten times more powerful sung by the romantic leads than by some disembodied offstage voice, as it was in the original.

Manoly Farrell is equally at home with the comic and dramatic elements of the fiery Anita. She dances up a storm in "America" and pours her soul into the classic "A Boy Like That"/ "I Have a Love" duet with McConnell. A special nod too for her thrilling high belt in the "Tonight (Quintet"). Miguel Romero as Sharks gangleader Bernardo has the right dramatic chops and smoldering intensity when he dances. Michael D. Jablonski's as the Jets leader Riff is the least impressive of the principal actors, and the only piece of casting that doesn't quite cut it, what with his rather slight build and baby face. Jablonski dances well enough, but it is hard to buy him as the guy the other Jets look up to. Jeremy Lucas as the ready to explode Action, Casey Craig as the funny and sympathetic Baby John, Jason Kappus as the wise-guy Big Deal, Daniel Cruz, Jr. as Bernardo's avenging crony Chino, and Naomi R. Morgan as the goofy, bleached blonde Rosalia are chief among the many standouts within the rival gangs and gals. Of the adult characters, credit Sean G. Griffin for investing the role of Doc with some real dignity and strength, and Chad Jennings for taking the cameo role of earning unforced laughs with very few lines as nerdily ineffectual dance chaperone Gladhand.

Scenic designer Martin Christoffel's skeletal urban landscapes give the dancers plenty of room to move, but there are drawbacks. Actors make exits and entrances from some stage left tunnel-like areas and this creates a very odd moment when Tony enters the grief-stricken Maria's bedroom after the rumble. He can't climb through her bedroom window as it is hung too high, but we're left to ponder how he gained entrance otherwise. And the distance from the ground to fire escape seems vast indeed, not to mention the distance Maria must cross the stage every time she has to reply to her offstage parents. This may seem like carping, but in a production of such high caliber it is a definite annoyance, especially when the other technical elements, including Tom Sturge's exciting and always apt lighting design, Lynda Salsbury's handsome and period appropriate costumes, and Jeremy J. Lee's exceptional sound design are so expertly handled.

West Side Story runs through June 17, 2007 at the 5th Avenue Theatre 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's website at www.5thavenuetheatre.org for further details.


Photo: Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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