Saturday, November 12, 2016

BWU’s WEST SIDE STORY, a step above the rest

WEST SIDE STORY, the Jerome Robbins (concept development), Leonard Bernstein (Music), Arthur Laurents (book), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), had an interesting road from idea to Broadway production to revivals.  The script is now in production by the Baldwin Wallace Department of Theatre and Dance and the Conservatory of Music’s Musical Theatre Program.

In 1974 Jerome Robbins conceived the idea of a contemporary musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET.  His idea was to center the focus on the conflict between an Irish Catholic family and Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan set during the Easter-Passover season.  The Catholic “Jets” and the Jewish “Emeralds” were “gangs” in conflict. 

Originally titled, EAST SIDE STORY, Bernstein proposed an operatic musical score.  The idea was rejected and a “lyric theater” concept was accepted.  Difficulty with the book and music caused the idea to be dropped. 

A number of years later, the idea re-emerged as WEST SIDE STORY, with Laurents changing the characters’ backgrounds to Polish and Irish descent and the formerly Jewish Maria to Puerto Rican.  Variances with the original ROMEO AND JULIET story were altered, especially Juliet’s faking her death. 

As the score and script developed, there was much adjusting of where various songs would appear and comic relief to increase the impact of the play’s tragic ending were added.   Effort was made, however, to ensure that the show would be a musical drama, not a musical comedy. 

Gang warfare in New York, just as the show was to open, made the topic relevant. 

Cast members, especially the dancers, were treated as actors, not just as bodies to be choreographed, which opened a new way for chorus members to be treated, and laid the foundation for such shows as A CHORUS LINE. 

The original production opened on Broadway in September, 1957, to strong positive reviews, ran 732 performances, went on national tour and returned to run another 253 performances.  Several revivals followed, including a 2009 version in which some of the lyrics and spoken lines were spoken and sung in Spanish.

The script for WEST SIDE STORY appears regularly on the Best American Musical’s lists and is considered to be one of the most difficult shows to stage due to the complex music and required dancing.  The film version won ten Academy Awards, in spite of the fact that the vocals for many of the songs were dubbed, as the roles were played by Hollywood actors rather than accomplished singer-actors.

The story is set in an Upper West Side neighborhood in New York in the mid-1950s, where gang rivalry for “turf” and “face” are the superficial source of conflict.  Tony, a former member of the Jets, realizes the ridiculousness of being a member of a gang from “womb to tomb” and has withdrawn.   At a dance, he falls in love at first sight with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks.  Tragedy follows as gang members are killed, in spite of Tony’s attempt to quell the fight.

This is a musical with a “dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems.”  It is credited with changing the course of the American musical by introducing the musical drama, serious social subjects, and a turn from escape to serious-minded story telling.

Baldwin Wallace University’s Music Theater Department is ranked as one of the best in the nation.  Their undertaking the difficult WEST SIDE STORY is an expected action for the program as the show gives the “Broadway with stars in their eyes” students a chance to stretch their acting, singing and dancing skills. 

The show is double cast.  Since I only saw the opening night performance by the Shark Cast, all of the reviewing comments center on that group of actors.

The production, under the direction of Victoria Bussert and choreographer Gregory Daniels, was an overall success.

Starting slowly and methodically, probably due to opening night nerves, the presentation shifted from automatic pilot to full-throttle somewhere during the middle of the first act. 

The “Jet Song” opening dance number lacked spontaneity.  Though well- choreographed, every move seemed preplanned, not establishing any real tension, a necessity for telegraphing the angst that is the guts of the story.  “The Dance at the Gym-Blues” also was somewhat emotionally flat.  Second act large dance numbers such as “Ballet Sequence,” hit the stride, leading up to an emotional conclusion that found the audience properly shell-shocked.

The “Officer Krupke” number was clearly the audience’s favorite “escape from angst” offering, while the “Ballet Sequence” was beautifully enacted, and “America” delighted.

The same emotional static involvement pattern followed with the vocals.  In his opening song, “Something’s Coming,” Colton Ryan (Tony) had difficulty articulating words in his lower range.  As the show proceeded, he seemed to relax, being, not performing, and his strong and expressive voice gained full vocal power.

Nadina Hassan created a beautiful and expressive Maria, growing emotionally from shy new-immigrant, to strong bereaved woman.  Her “I Feel Pretty” was truly delightful.

Shayla Brielle created a clearly sexually explosive Anita.  The drugstore scene, where she lays the foundation for the show’s climax, was aggressively focused.

Amy Keum was delightful as Anybody’s, the “I want to be a gang boy.”  Michael Canada nicely textured the multiple personality levels of Chino, and Elizabeth Rosenberg sang “Somewhere” with clear emotional meaning.  Dan Hoy was credible as Riff.

The production was enhanced by Jeff Herman’s lighting and Statue of Liberty on-its-side setting, Charlotte Yetman’s costumes, and David Gotwald’s sound design.

Broadway bound?  Colton Ryan, though not the tall macho leading man type, should find a place on the Great White Way in roles for the young, clean scrubbed type who have big voices.  Nadina Hassan has the potential for pretty ingénue roles.

The large orchestra was excellent, though in several instances their size and volume drowned out the performance. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  BWU’s Music Theatre program is nationally recognized for its quality, as evidenced by the number of its graduates who have lit up the Broadway theatre scene and touring productions.  WEST SIDE STORY is a difficult show to “get right.”  As should be expected from the quality students and proficient staff, the production was a step above what other colleges could do. Better than Broadway?…no.  But, definitely the incubator where future Broadway stars bud and grow.   Anyone who hasn’t seen this wonderfully conceived musical should attend this production.

WEST SIDE STORY is scheduled to run through November 22, 2016.  For tickets and information call 440-826-2240 or go to