THEATER REVIEW: West Side Story 

There's a Place for It: Charleston Stage's West Side Story is OK, not essential

The show: For the opening of its 31st season, Charleston Stage takes on a classic. The 51-year-old West Side Story was transformed by Jerome Robbins (choreographer/director) from librettist Arthur Laurents and composer Leonard Bernstein. Any reproduction is a sizable feat.

Charleston Stage, in terms of effort and expense, has much to brag about. This production of West Side Story, currently in the hands of director Marybeth Clark, brings a unique range of age, experience, and talent.

A new theater season equals an eager audience. The labor and love that went into this production was abundantly clear. Opening night's performance, however, amounted to only an attempt to lavish theatergoers. Even so, the arena was redeemed in surprising ways, and though we must prepare for the sobering affect of a somber ending, we mustn't start there.

The story: You know how West Side Story ends, and if you don't, merely search your lexicon for Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Same game, different century. If for some reason you've not seen a stage presentation of this mystic and mythic tale, here is your chance to see dance with some stellar moments.

We know the rival gangs, the "American" Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks, will spar with movement. What you may also have to endure is the pit orchestra competing with the singers; at one point, during Riff's "Cool," the trumpet line was so loud he appeared to be mouthing his lines.

There are two sides to every story, and the mild trivia of knowing the original title employed the directional East versus the renowned West, barely makes a difference since those are not the "sides" in question.

The performance: It's important to note is that West Side Story was the first in musical theater to incorporate dance as a plot device. That is, portions of the story were expressed in Robbins' iconic movement, not narrative. Essential scenes in this production allow the dancing to act in expository, foreshadowing, and climactic ways.

This is a bit of trivia worth knowing, as watching for the genius of this device could lend one something to do doing during the less impressive parts of Charleston Stage's presentation.

One group of dancers wasn't better than the others. Some from each group managed to keep their steps in unison. Some could not. And though some scenes featuring the dance corps were electric, those same scenes are remembered as being tepid at best. Overall, dance thrills were 50-50.

Among the show's better aspects was the set design. The setting is spicy and cathedral. The dancing tries quite hard to live up to the vivid backalleys and the inventive wall of ribbons that highlight the mambo dance at the gym.

The singing was not cathedral. This despite our hope that it would be.

Laurels go to costume designer, Barbara Young, and choreographer, Kevin P. Hill. If you had only your sight to guide you, you'd have been dazzled by the bold satin dancing of the "Shark Girls." These dancers were flamboyant at times, especially Sarah Claire Smith who plays the charming Anita.

These dancers take turns on the floor, trading time with the "Jet Girls." The Jet dresses employ features less bold. They are pastel and glittery, more refined. Among these "American" girls (read: Polish, Irish, Italian, etc.) one could see ballet, maybe even a waltz.

The judgment: As long as your expectations aren't too high, portions of Charleston Stage's West Side Story mesmerized and were even memorable.

The full-throated singing of Tony (Aaron Velthouse, whose "focus" on opera is obvious) and partner Viveka Chandrasekaran, in the role of Maria, do attempt a "cathedral-like" meeting. Their voices: called long, beckoned together, created a second orchestra for naïve ears.

Yet even naïve ears could not ignore the barrage of accents from which a clearly Puerto Rican voice was missing. What could not be missed, however, was the orchestra: It was often and memorably out of sync with the singers.

The recommendation: You know the story, you know Romeo and Juliet, and you know Tony and Maria (like Riff says "I know Tony like I know me.")

But what you don't know, rather who you don't know, is this Tony and this Maria.

Fans of musical theater will have a fine time, as will couples looking for a pleasant evening out. Those hoping to find something new and innovative will find in the set design and costumes, but little else.

The information: West Side Story, Sept. 18-20, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21, 3 p.m. $31-$41, Sottile Theatre, 44 George St., (843) 577-7183, www.charlestonstage.com

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