Review: West Side Story by touring company
by Michael Meigs
A stage jammed with more than 30 trim, talented dancers, a 15-piece orchestra doing Leonard Bernstein's instantly recognizable score, a couple of memorable scenic pieces and a respectful interpretation of the 1957 reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet, tweaked only very slightly, if at all -- the touring company of West Side Story delivers exactly what the American public expects. The enterprise also provides an enlightening illustration of the difference between a film -- who hasn't seen and been impressed by the 1961 motion picture? -- and live musical theatre.
The vast spaces of the 2900-seat Bass concert hall are a challenge to any performance -- one indication is that you can rent binoculars at the concession stand before the show. Even in the mid-orchestra seats provided for press representatives, the actors in solo and duo scenes seemed alarmingly far away, as the mind's eye compared them to the vivid images of Jerome Robbins' 1961 film.
The excitement and the spectacle of the dance scenes made up for that. No film can give the scope and the dazzle of Robbins' large dance scenes, and the choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely for this staging delivers excitement, humor and far more action than your eye can follow. The show springs to life with the scene of the dance at the gym. Rival crowds, Jets and Sharks, dressed spiffy and swirly, brightly colored, challenging, teasing, frolicking and bounding with energy, contrast with one another, with the doltish adults, and eventually with the starstruck lovers Maria and Tony as they perceive one another across the full breadth of the stage.
The biggest applause came for the iconic I Like to Be in America, the teasing, stamping, celebratory number featuring the sassy, worldly Anita (Michelle Aravena, who got the most exuberant applause at the curtain call). Seven women dancers fill that broad stage with their banter and movement.
The YouTube video below, reposted at the UT Performing Arts website, features the original Anita, not Aravena, but several of the other women were onstage in Austin last night. Curiously, the video as shot and cut doesn't really capture the swoop and vigor of the live performance -- a reminder that cinema editing is an entirely different technique from reproducing stage performance.
The Gee, Officer Krupke number is a counterpart, with clowning, joking narrative and impressivelyrubber-legged stunts by the Sharks.
Publicity stresses the use of Spanish language inthe performance -- "more than 12% of the lines/songsare in Spanish." That decision provides a bit of flavor but alters the experience very little, in part because the public knows the libretto so well. There's a generous helping of common insults ("maricón! puta! pendejo!") and some cross-talk among the Puerto Rican characters, especially when they're in family situations. Spanish lyrics to the Bernstein music are inconsequential, sometimes downright strange -- for example, the rhythms of I Feel Pretty, sung by Maria with replies by her mocking girlfriends, are pure Anglo-Saxon.
Most remarkable for me was Act II anthem There's A Place for Us. Tony and Maria are transported to a open, airy scene as if on a beach in imagination, with initial lighting so brilliant that it literally hurts one's eyes. This song is led and sung almost entirely by Anybodys, the scruffy, scrappy sawed-off girl who was a tomboy in the original and here is gay or potentially transexual. Alexandra Frohlinger in that role is enchanting, a monument of tiny longing and self confidence.
Acknowledgment: AustinLiveTheatre received a complimentary press ticket for the opening night performance of West Side Story.
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