Leads shine in weak `West Side Story'

Theater Review

October 17, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When a musical about gang violence, racism and murder seems tame, something is the matter.

And when that musical is one of the greatest Broadway classics, something is definitely wrong.

The musical is the 1957 Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents masterpiece West Side Story, and it's back at the Lyric Opera House for the third time in six years.

Once again the direction and choreography are by Alan Johnson, who is credited with "reproducing" the original work of the late Jerome Robbins. But while the outlines of Robbins' staging remain, most of the spirit is gone.

The clearest example comes in the number, "Cool," when the Jets' leader, Riff - Shane Kirkpatrick in a blond mop-top haircut that looks more like The Partridge Family than the mean streets of 1950s New York - tries to put a damper on his gang's nervous energy.

It's a number that should bristle with barely repressible turbulence as each gang member briefly erupts, then quickly quells his hostile passion. In the current production, however, the Jets' temperatures are so cool to start with, it's impossible for them to simmer over.

The production does include a few respectable performances, from the relatively small (Andrew Palermo as a Jet who delivers an especially amusing turn in the comic number, "Gee, Officer Krupke") to the two leads, who, fortunately, are standouts.

As Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers in this Romeo and Juliet update, Drew Niles and Natasha Harper are the best - and just about the only - reason to see this over-tired production.

When Niles sings Tony's first solo, "Something's Coming," the character's sense of hope is as crystal clear as the actor's strong tenor. And when he's joined by Harper's dulcet soprano in Tony and Maria's duets, there's chemistry in the lovely blending of their voices as well as in their acting. Musty as most of this production looks, the actors still find the inherent charm in the couple's mock wedding scene in "One Hand, One Heart."

Praising the clarity of Niles' singing brings up another problem, however. At Tuesday's opening, the sound system initially muffled much of the dialogue and lyrics; even the orchestra sounded muted (but not enough to disguise some playing that was less than crisp).

Regrettably, the set changes were not muted. Doc's drugstore (where Tony works) collided with another piece of scenery in the first act, and in the second, Doc's parting advice to Tony was delivered over the sound of the finale set being hauled on behind a backdrop.

The scenery, designed by Leo B. Meyer, owes a debt to the original, but stagecraft has advanced considerably in the past half-century, and these awkward sets with their slow-moving components and drably painted drops are stuck in the '50s in terms of technology as well as artistry.

As this past summer's Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center repeatedly proved, the great works of the modern musical stage not only stand up to new interpretations but are also enhanced by them. Director/choreographer Johnson's association with this show isn't merely long-standing (he was a replacement in the original Broadway cast and has been staging it around the world for the past three decades), it appears to have grown stale.

West Side Story

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Tickets: $26.50-$64

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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