Theatre Mirror Reviews - "West Side Story"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


based on a conception by Jerome Robbins
book by Arthur Laurents
music by Leonard Bernstein
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins
directed by … Amanda Dehnert
choreographed by … Sharon Jenkins
fight choreography by … Craig Handel musical direction by … Karl Shymanovitz


Riff, the leader of the Jets… Tommar Wilson
Tony, his friend … Tony Yazbeck
Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks … Wilson Mendieta
Maria, his sister … Nina Negri
Anita, his girl … Courtney Laine Mazza
Chino, his friend … Nick Sanchez

Graziella … Alexandra Blackbird
Francisca ... Patty Brearley
Action … Joey Calveri
A-rab … Gabriel Croom
Doc … William Damkoehler
Baby John … Christian Delcroix
Velma; Consuela … Lori Holmes
Diesel; Pepe … Jason Lacayo
Snow Boy … Leon La
Rosalia … Wi-Moto Nyoka
Schrank; Glad Hand … Mark Peckham
Big Deal; Indio … Freddy Ramirez
Officer Krupke ... Ben Steinfeld
Anybodys; Somewhere Girl ... Rachel Warren


Conductor … Karl Shymanovitz
Concertmaster … Adam McOwen*
Violins … Lois Finkel*; Liz Codd; Suzanna Elkin; Rebecca Fischer; Robin Gilbert;
Violins … Ilana Goldstein; Georgia Hoyler; Natasha Shenfield; Joe Swain; Caroline Thiebeault
Reeds … Louis Toth*; Richard Marchetti*
Trumpets … Taylor Temple*; Nick Jemo*
Horn ... Rebecca Hunsberger
Trombone ... Charles J. Katuska*; Teresa Katuska*
Piano … Mo Tian
Keyboard: Natasha Ullman*
Percussion … Joe Demarco*; Casey Belisle; Scott Cioe; Andy Jenkins; Trevor Wooley
Drums … Mike Sartini*
Bass … Thomas Brinkley*

(* = mentor/musicians; others are student scholarship recipients)

Had I seen numerous excellent productions of WEST SIDE STORY and was growing bored with this masterwork, I would have welcomed Trinity Rep’s production as a refreshing variation --- i.e. Something New --- but I haven’t and I didn’t even though the audience rose as one and gave it a thundering ovation. Shakespeare is still fair game for directors but now landmark musicals are being jumped up for today’s audiences --- it’s only a matter of time before El Gallo bares Luisa’s breasts in THE FANTASTICKS (well, he’s been hired to perform a rape, hasn’t he?). There is little to darken in WEST SIDE STORY with its gang wars, a rape and three deaths including that of the hero, but Amanda Denhert and Sharon Jenkins have altered it considerably --- not beyond recognition but certainly beyond comprehension.

First, there is the matter of skin color: the ensemble is racially mixed with much crossing back and forth between the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Hispanic), women included, which makes the class warfare rather pointless --- would a racially mixed FIDDLER ON THE ROOF or PACIFIC OVERTURES work? Then there is all that Brechtian alienation --- each scene begins with cast members spelling it out with paint rollers then snapping their fingers at an electronic scoreboard; the finale ends on a deliberate downbeat with the show’s title spelled out in red (the audience murmured at its supposed brilliance, not feeling cheated at all). Finally, there are the musical numbers: a director once advised me on how to work with actors: never conceptualize with them because then they will begin to think rather than to build their characters organically. Here, Mss. Denhert and Jenkins’ ensembles are clearly thinking; they have been pressed into a concept (a vague one, but still a concept) and the results are mechanically evident: the choreography lacks shape, character, even a sense of dance for dance’s sake --- just when a pattern is taking hold, the ensemble shifts into another gear; they must feel marvelously warmed-up, after all those aerobics. Plus they never really go away: Tony and Maria are ever being upstaged with bodies or candles or mirrors, especially in “I Have a Love” --- a turning point that leads to the final tragedy --- where Anita gazes up at Bernardo’s ghost while Maria, forgotten, warbles downstage.

Trinity’s Tony and Maria are the show’s true candles and mirrors, glowing and reflecting, separately or together --- tweak-free lovers, these. Tony Yazbeck is a real find: handsome enough to be a romantic lead yet with “neighborhood” looks, and he both sings and dances --- a rare Tony, indeed --- his rendition of “Maria”, complete with that oft-ignored high note in the home stretch, drew the show’s one round of heart-felt applause. He is also convincing in his courtship: his “I love you” is simple and vulnerable --- even more so considering he and Maria are standing on a catwalk without any railing. Nina Negri also sings and moves well; her Maria is plucky, even mischievous --- solid colors rather than pastels, which lay the groundwork for her passion, her anger and her final outrage. On the debit side, Courtney Laine Mazza has a model’s good looks but is clearly slumming as Anita (no pun intended) --- her ad-libs during “America” are particularly irritating --- and William Damkoehler, one of Trinity’s aces, seems to be doing a Yiddish-Irish spin on Doc; my guess is as good as yours.

Ms. Denhert’s handling of the spoken scenes comes off better, despite a few moments where I had to bite back my laughter --- the war council where the Jets and Sharks pile up proposed weapons as if in a Warner Brothers cartoon, and the lovers’ wedding night: the sleeping Maria is carried on in her slip and placed downstage, followed by Tony, shirtless and cuddled in a man’s arms --- but when WEST SIDE STORY’s prose becomes its strong points, you know something is terribly wrong with its production.

"West Side Story" (23 April - 6 June)
201 Washington Street, PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
1 (401) 351-4242

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide