Friday, June 28, 2002

West Side Story (Cain Park)

Frantic 'WEST SIDE STORY' at Cain Park

In 1949 Jerome Robbins brought together composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents to work on a modern musical version of 'ROMEO AND JULIET.' Originally called 'EAST SIDE STORY,' it was about a Jewish boy’s star-crossed romance with an Italian Catholic girl set against the clashing street gangs on New York’s lower East Side. Eventually, Polish was substituted for Jewish, Puerto Rican replaced Catholic, and the setting was moved to the west side. A 27 year-old lyricist by the name of Stephen Sondheim was brought onto the production team to participate in his first Broaway show. A master musical and many legends emerged.

The show concerns Tony, a second generation Polish-American who once was the leader of the Jets street gang. He becomes committed to peaceful coexistence between the “Americans” and the “Puerto Ricans” when he meets and falls in love with Maria at a high school dance. The star-crossed lovers run into complications, when, in spite of his best efforts at avoidance, Tony kills Maria's brother, who has killed Tony’s best friend in a rumble gone awry. Eventually total tragedy hits when Tony is murdered. The show contains such memorable songs as “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Have a Love, and “Tonight.”

'WEST SIDE STORY' was one of the first Broadway shows I ever saw. I was entranced by the powerful dancing, the integration of story and song, the quality of the music and the depth of the performances. I have seen many productions of the show since. Each, of course has its own interpretation. I must admit, however, I have never seen an interpretation quite like the one conceived by Victoria Bussert. The concept can best be described as “frantic.”

It must be realized that Bussert is generally working with a group of theatrical amateurs. In the main, these are not Actors Equity performers. These are mostly college and high school kids who give their time and effort free of charge. Even so, there were many talented thespians on stage, enthusiastic performers who put forth full-effort throughout the show.

The usual competent and wise Bussert chose to pace the show at a breakneck speed. Maybe she did this because her cast are mainly suburban intelligent clean scrubbed kids whose life experiences don’t parallel to inner city gangs. By pacing rapidly she may have been trying to substitute excitement for emotional intensity. It didn’t work as well as one might hope. Some dramatic scenes didn’t have time to develop, emotions were shown by shouting and screeching, songs were often sung at a rapid pace that didn’t allow the audience to understand the words. Even the delightful “Officer Krupke” got few laughs because the words were swallowed.

Janiece Kelley-Kiteley’s fine choreography was often turned into speed dancing. In spite of great physical effort of the dancers the overall effect was often chaos. Larry Hartzell’s orchestra must have been gasping for breath as they plowed rapidly through song after song, sometimes drowning out the singers. Even the set changes were done as marathon dashes.

The show does have fine moments. The fight scene in which Bernardo and Riff are killed was masterfully done. Tony and Maria’s meeting at the dance was finely honed. The famous balcony scene was both touching and humorous, filled with the youthful joy of first love.

Many of the performances were also on key. Trista Moldovan, a recent Baldwin Wallace grad, who is New York bound following this show, was excellent as Maria. She has a fine voice and her character development was clear and consistent. Joelle Graham smoldered her way through the part of Anita. Her eyes flashed, her intensity light up the stage. Kevin David Thomas, who earlier this year took the part of Tony for Baldwin Wallace College’s production of 'WEST SIDE STORY,' sings well but was inconsistent in his character development. Ryann Green was right on target as Bernardo.

Capsule judgement: One patron as she was exiting the theatre said, “I’m exhausted.” Too bad, she should have been exhilarated, not exhausted.