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

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