Wednesday, May 4, 2011

West Side Story, PlayhouseSquare

(Michelle Aravena as Anita and Ali Ewoldt as Maria in their dazzling duet)

Some ideas just never outlive their original power. And when it comes to West Side Story, we can happily report that the juice is still worth the squeeze.

Now at PlayhouseSquare, this is the touring production of the 2009 Broadway revival that was directed by original book-writer Arthur Laurents. The story of the Sharks and the Jets is well known, as is the retelling of Romeo and Juliet from the perspective of two gangs on the mean streets of 1950s New York City. But with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this is one piece of theater that will likely live forever.

While much of the staging and dance moves are the same, one new twist is the partly bi-lingual presentation: Some dialog and lyrics are delivered in Spanish by the Puerto Rican Sharks. This works beautifully, since many in the audience will be able to translate these very familiar words in real time.

Even if you can’t, the meaning behind the scenes is never obscured. And there is a resulting credibility that lends a raw energy to this street conflict between two cultures.

The one soft spot in this staging centers around the two leads. The touring company apparently has three women and three men who respectively share the roles of Maria and Tony. On opening night, Ali Ewoldt fashioned a girlish and pert Maria, and applied her muscular soprano to her songs. Indeed, this is a voice that could cut steel ingots like butter.

But her Tony for that evening, Cary Tedder, was virtually trampled by her vocal chops. Looking more like a grown-up Opie than a street-tough kid, Tedder also seemed tentative in his singing, not coloring his held notes and failing to fully act his lyrics. As a result, the chemistry between the two never developed.

Although she’s no Chita Rivera (and who is?), Michelle Aravena provides plenty of laughs and sparks as Anita, and her duet "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" with Ewoldt in the second act soared. Also, the "almost rape" scene in Doc’s candy store, where Anita is cornered, still chills to the bone. As Riff, Joseph J. Simeone has a good look but his voice sounded tired in places.

Action (Drew Foster) and the Jets have fun with “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and the Shark gals dance up a storm in “America,” even though their words at times were hard to understand over the orchestra.

The biggest visual treat is when the stage transforms to the under-the-highway site of the pivotal rumble, with the highway descending and a chain link fence lowered to cover the entire proscenium. The symbolism of these kids trapped in the cage of their own tangled destinies is vital and memorable.

With a stronger love match between Tony and Maria, this show could be marvelous. As it may be, at times, during the remainder of the run.

West Side Story

Through May 15 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, May 2, 2011

Underneath the Lintel, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

If you have a mystery to solve, who’s the first person you call? A librarian, of course! Well, maybe not. But the librarian in Underneath the Lintel, now at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, turns out to be a super sleuth who tracks his prey all the way back to the crucifixion.

This play by Glen Berger is loaded with a dense thicket of clues about the borrower of a library book that is 113 years overdue, a density that could defeat lesser actors. But Robert Hawkes is nearly flawless in this one-man performance, playing the script and his audience like a virtuoso.

Our hero is a Dutch librarian who is addressing a gathering in a rented hall, a man afflicted with all the petty concerns the stereotype of his occupation suggests. He has issues with his co-workers, especially when they mooch some of his lunch. But he saves his ultimate scorn for those who drop off books without paying their dues. So you can imagine his feelings when he finds a book past due by more than a century.

Pursuing the slimmest of clues, including a laundry ticket, he relates how he pursued this scofflaw from China to Germany and from the United States to Australia. Ultimately, he entertains the theory that the person he’s hunting is actually the Wandering Jew of legend, who was doomed to walk the Earth until the second coming of Christ.

Hawkes unfolds this intricate story with immense patience while keeping the audience riveted at every moment through deft pacing changes and thrown-away laugh lines. Whether we believe the librarian's story, or if we decide he's just imagining it all, the impact is the same. He and director Susan Soltis develop a character beset not just with obsessions but with a desire to explore the meaning of life beyond daily rituals and, yes, the Dewey Decimal System.

After watching this production, you may want to discuss the ideas lurking behind the simple expression “I was here.” But whether you do or not, you will know you were in the presence of an actor functioning, gloriously, at the peak of his craft. And that’s worth a good deal more than the price of this ticket.

Underneath the Lintel

Through May 14 at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, River Street Playhouse, 56 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955