Theatre Mirror Reviews - "West Side Story"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


Reviews of Current Productions


note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Larry Stark


"West Side Story"

Book by Arhtur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Ernest J. Medeiros
Choreography by Jennifer Gillis
Musical Director Scott Morency

Set Design by David Jepson, Ernest J. Medieros
Lighting Design by David Jepson
Costumes by Pat Plante, Edith Fatigato, Beth Jepson
Sound Design by Kyle Peltier
Stage Manager Sara Booth

Tony...........................David J. Tessier
Maria.............................Rebecca Burns
Bernardo........................Jeremy Marquand
Anita...........................Jennifer Gillis
Action.......................Greg "Spaz" Gillis
Chino...........................Yxchel Castillo
Riff..................................Dan Dulac
Anybody's..........................Susan Denice
Baby John...................Michael P. Shutleff
Gladhand/Doc...........................Bob Fish
Lt. Schrank......................Norm Hassinger
Officer Krupke..................Bruce W. Lackey
Pepe......................Bernardo Santana, Jr.
A-Rab.............................Evans Andrews
Indio.............................John J. Gomes
Big Deal.............................Jason Cole
Luis.................................Jose Docen
Diesel........................Michael DiMascolo
Juan................................Jason Erelo
Graziella......................Catherine Sadler
Rosalia.......................Melanie A. Amaral
Velma.............................Kristin David
Consuelo.......................Christine Trelia
Minnie...........................Amanda Castoro
Francisca.......................Kimberly Harris
Clarice..........................Bethany Moffat
Margarita........................Hollie Winward

Orchestra

Keyboard......................Scott Morency
Trumpet.......................Dennis Martel
Trumpet......................Eliza Holtzman
Clarinet/Sax/Flute.............Julie Donais
Trombone.....................Jason Silveria
Percussion..................Jonathan Munroe


The best way to show respect for a great modern classic is to make it new. You might not expect that to happen in the fourteenth season of a dinner theater in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but their new production of "West Side Story" is exactly that: new. The City Nights Director Ernest J. Medeiros and Choreographer Jennifer Gillis and a young, intense cast of twenty-six (six of them new to theater) clear the decks of all clichés and consistently make the right choices to let the show's strengths come alive.

What choices? Well, for a start --- cut the overtures to push the audience right into the action. For another instance, cut the preachy "Brotherhood Ballet" dream sequence. And as another, cast dancers who can sing, singers who can dance, and singers and dancers who can act. Give everyone an individual character consistent with the lines, and when in doubt go with fully explanatory text rather than music or dance to further the plot. Then make certain that each character means exactly what they say, every single word of the way.

For instance, the cliché way to do the "Officer Krupke" number --- which works even on the original cast recording --- is to steal the beat cop's cap, then to find a lot of street-garbage to use as hand-props and wigs so the whole thing becomes a cartoon. The rim-shots are usually accompanied by dope-slaps from an imitation billy-club of rolled-up newspaper as exaggerated as anything in a Bugs Bunny film. Down in Pawtucket there are still rim-shots and dope-slaps, but every slap comes from a different direction and without any newspaper, and instead of caps and wigs and props the kids are all wearing their Jets jackets and assume characters with body-language, voice and accents while putting the hapless Action (Greg "Spaz" Gillis) through a whole array of newly invented gyrations. The sequence is probably a delightful showstopper every night.

For instance, they've cast a young-looking Michael P. Shurtleff as Baby John, who just adores Superman comics and has all the lines of fear and cowardice, and then they asked him to play those lines as about fourteen. His obvious youth gives bite to those lines, and in a sequence where the Jets are about to gang-rape Anita, it makes it look as though they are ritually allowing this adolescent kid bust his cherry.

The adults here --- Detective Lt. Schrank (Norm Hassinger) the heavy who has chosen sides against Puetro Rican "spics" and Doc (Bob Fish) whose drugstore is a Jets hangout --- speak loudly, clearly, forcefully, and with the weight of authority or wisdom in their frequent pauses, so that although they are never heeded they are never irrelevant. That makes the kids' wary indifference into a generational tension.

Here Chino --- Maria's intended --- is played by Yxchel Castillo (himself an immigrant from Venezuela) as a nervous new-arrival eager to please --- and totally demoralized and eager to get a gun and seek revenge when the honorable rumble goes sour and his proud patron Bernardo (Jeremy Marquand) is killed.

It is clear here that when the apothecary tells Tony (David J. Tessier) Chino has killed his beloved Maria (Rebecca Burns) he is devastated. His cries of "Come on, Chino, kill me too!" croak up from depths of despair, and his incredulous, shocked delight at seeing her still alive is a luminous instant of light in that darkness.

Tessier and Burns handle their operatic love-duets well enough, but it is their sincere action, whether singing or speaking, that makes their star-crossed love come alive. Likewise, choreographer Jennifer Gillis plays Anita herself, and in such a way that her two emotional flip-flops --- first trying to help Tony and Maria to run free, then instead declaring that Maria's been shot dead --- into believably motivated emotional changes. And her lengthy, original dance sequences for everyone are always expressively original.

What creaks here are faults in the classic show itself --- like Jerome Robbins' elegant ballet-steps deflating the energetic street-kids' strut; like Leonard Bernstein's operatic arias that are difficult to sing while acting; like the plot that makes the gang leaders (Dan Dulac as the Jets' Riff and Jeremy Marquand as the Sharks' Bernardo) into rigid, inflexibly doomed stereotypes of the past just as much as Tony and Maria are the stereotypes of a doomed hope of the future; like hip dialog that is thirty years out of date. There are problems that even excellent acting cannot erase, but this well-focused, well-handled cast makes this old show as new as possible short of a total rewrite.

And now,

THE DISCLAIMER
I once advised Don Gillis, who covers Rhode Island for The Theater Mirror, to admit up-front in his review that he had family members in the cast he was reviewing, but that he liked the show anyway. Don and his wife Dianne have twice invited me down as a reviewer --- once because Don had directed the show, and here because his son plays Action and his daughter-in-law Anita. The Gillises are a generous, engaging, gracious family who have fed me, escorted me, talked endlessly and insightfully about theater with me, and when I missed a bus even drove me back to Boston where I got them lost, cost them time and gasoline, and undoubtedly sent them home way past their bedtimes. As the curtain was about to rise on this dinner theater production of a show I had twice seen with severe reservations, I whispered to Don that if I didn't like it, instead of a formal review I'd do a Cricket's Notebook about dinner theater in general; but five minutes into the show I knew all of the Gillises had nothing to worry about.

You are privileged to believe that everything you read here is a kind exaggeration of the truth about my personal friends. But if you think so, I challenge you to trek over to Pawtucket and see for yourself. If you think I'm inaccurate, I'll pay you the full face value of your ticket-stub. But, if you see the same show I did, send The Mirror an e-mail note saying so.

My reputation as a believable reviewer is, as it should be, in your hands.

Love,
===Anon.

"West Side Story" (till 21 June)
CITY NIGHTS DINNER THEATER
27 Exchange Street, PAWTUCKET, RHODE ISLAND
1(401)723-6060

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