Sunday, July 03, 2005

West Side Story (Porthouse Theatre/KSU)

Porthouse's 'WEST SIDE STORY' oky, but lacks the needed edginess

In September of 1957 I made my first of what was to become many visits to New York City to see Broadway productions. One of the shows I saw on that trip was the newly opened ‘WEST SIDE STORY.’ I fell in love with musical theatre that night when I viewed the dynamic, edgy and compelling show. That production stared Carol Lawrence as Maria, Larry Kert as Tony and Chita Rivera as Anita. I have seen many productions of that musical since then. A few were superb, some bad and most, like that now being presented at Porthouse Theatre, are okay, but not mesmerizing.

‘WEST SIDE STORY’ transfers Shakespeare's ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’ to modern-day New York. The love story of Romeo and Juliet becomes that of Maria and Tony. The feud between the houses of the Capulets and the Montagues is re-created in one involving two teen-age gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The famous balcony scene of the Shakespeare drama transpires on a fire-escape of a New York tenement. And, as in the original, the star-crossed love affair ends in doom.

As in all well-conceived musicals the elements in ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ combine to make a seamless work. Leonard Bernstein’s music is passionate as well as memorable. Jerome Robbins' original choreography conveyed the tension and violence of city life. Arthur Laurents' dialogue and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics skillfully draw the audience into the story.

‘WEST SIDE STORY’ took Broadway by storm. Four years later it was made into a film, which won an Academy Award as the best film of 1961. Unfortunately, the movie contained much sham. Instead of using the mutli-talented Lawrence and Kert, the powers that be cast non-singers Natalie Wood as Maria and Richard Beymer as Tony. (A little-known fact is that Elvis Presley was originally considered for the role of Tony.) The former child star Jimmy Bryant was Beymer’s musical voice and Marni Nixon’s singing was dubbed for Natalie Wood. Even the great Rita Moreno, who played Anita, had her voice enhanced by Betty Wand.

‘WEST SIDE STORY’ is a difficult play for amateurs to do well. First, there is Bernstein’s music which is both difficult to sing and play. Then, there is the necessity for superb dancing which is so integral to the plot. In addition, there is the requirement for the cast to understand and duplicate the frustration of the ghetto, the immigrant desire for territory and assimilation, and the basis for the cultural clashes.

Porthouse’s orchestra, under the able musical direction of Melissa Fucci, was excellent. The musical interpretation incorporated the proper urgency, the impending conflict, the underscoring of what was happening and what was to come.

The singing, on the other hand, was not always well accomplished. Kayce Cummings (Maria) has a wonderful voice. She interprets song lyrics well. Stephen Brockway (Tony) has a pleasant voice, but not the full sound needed for such powerful songs as “Maria” and “Something’s Coming.” In fact, in their duets Cumming’s voice so overshadowed Brockway’s that when the two were singing together in “One Hand, One Heart” it was more Maria’s solo than a duet. Sandra Emerick (Anita) has a wonderful voice. Too bad her dancing abilities didn’t parallel her vocals and fiery acting.

Choreographer John Crawford wisely did not attempt to duplicate Jerome Robbins extremely difficult movements. What he did use was often, with few exceptions, beyond the abilities of the dancers. This was especially true with the males. David Gregory and Andrew Mills held their own, but you could almost see some of the others counting their movement beats. Well conceived and performed was the sprightly “America.” On the other hand, due to poor physical movements and some questionable line interpretations, the usually hysterical “Gee, Officer Krupke” was pleasant, at best.

The major place the show stumbled was in attitude. The edge simply wasn’t there. These were, for the most part, clean scrubbed suburban teenagers pretending to be tough. The tension and violence of city ghetto life was just too far removed from their experiences for them to feel it, to create reality. The show has to be dynamic, compelling, engrossing, real. The Porthouse production was pleasant, well-intentioned and nice. That’s okay for lots of musicals, but not for “WEST SIDE STORY.”

Nolan Dell’s scenic design was excellent. T. C. Kouyeas Jr.’s lighting was generally good, but the climax of the rumble at the end of Act 1 was diminished by the lack of incessant flashing police lights and the lazy movement of the spotlights. The lack of compelling vividness failed to give the needed emotional spark.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Porthouse’s ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ is a perfectly acceptable summer theatre production. Unfortunately, it lacked the edge, the needed compelling quality to make it a special experience.