You can do worse than to steal from Shakespeare, as the classic American musical West Side Story proves — that is, when it’s not proving the curmudgeon’s adage that they don’t make ’em like they used to. And at Trinity Repertory Company, inventive associate artistic director Amanda Dehnert paints a fresh coat of grafﬁti on that famed 1950s inner-city rewrite of Romeo and Juliet by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins, scrawling next to their names that of Bertolt Brecht.
Dehnert more or less leapt from the Trinity Rep Conservatory to associate artistic directorship of the company because someone awake at the wheel spotted talent. A musician as well as a director, she helmed a particularly fresh My Fair Lady, the traditional orchestra replaced by two grand pianos around which the action swirled, the company watching from the sidelines when not actively engaged. Last season, she directed an Annie that emphasized the Depression and the wounded humanity of the orphan with an eye toward "Tomorrow."
For West Side Story, Trinity has pulled out the stops, hiring dancer-singers from New York rather than just casting the portion of the regular company that can sing. And Dehnert has gathered a full orchestra that’s perched above the gym-like playing space. Comprising mentors and student scholarship recipients, the group, conducted by musical director Karl Shymanovitz, get the job done. Once again the director keeps the cast, a multicultural lot, on stage much of the time, watching from a stack of bleachers beneath an electronic scoreboard that keeps track of the progress of scenes. Some performers (of both sexes), in a basic garb of tank leotards and sweat pants, switch-hit as Jets and Sharks, which is confusing — as might be the bare-bones staging, except that the cast, armed with rollers, paints the names of locations like bold white grafﬁti on the black stage ﬂoor. The heart of the musical — its ravishing, at times operatic score — beats strong in the mouths of Tony Yazbeck’s Tony and Nina Negri’s Maria, but the muscular choreography sometimes seems constricted on the elevated, rectangular stage. And watching Tony and Maria edge toward each other on narrow scaffolding above the arena is harrowing. We know Dehnert to be innovative, but it wouldn’t do for the principals to hurtle to their deaths before being taken to the traditional bosom of tragedy.
Still, is there a more thrilling score in American musical theater than that of the 1957 West Side Story? The depiction of gang rivalry on the Upper West Side, where dueling factions share a supervised dance at a gym and knives and zip guns send up prickles of fear, seems almost quaint. And at Trinity, Tony and Maria appear to fall in love almost faster than at ﬁrst sight. But there is a gymnastic excitement to Sharon Jenkins’s choreography (and Craig Handel’s for the terpsichorean rough stuff) for the athletic cast, even if it does get cramped. Wilson Mendieta, sporting a chest-wide Orthodox-cross tattoo as Sharks leader Bernardo, and Courtney Laine Mazza, the petite and feisty Anita, are elegant as well as accomplished dancers. Mazza brings attitude to "America," the snappy musical debate over the relative rottenness of Puerto Rico and Manhattan that she shares with Wi-Moto Nyoka’s Rosalia, and rumbling passion to the indictment "A Boy like That." The men of the Jets make the satiric, insolent most of "Gee, Ofﬁcer Krupke" — perhaps the showiest display of the young Stephen Sondheim’s incomparable smartness with lyrics.
Apart from giving pride of place to the dance sequences, which Jenkins marks with graceful angularity (and a balletic nod to Jerome Robbins), Dehnert focuses on the naive, tender passion of the lovers, who in their exuberance seem not to realize that, given their clashing cultures, they’ll face worse obstacles than that scaffolding. Yazbeck’s Tony is more Spin-and-Marty than Mean Streets, and he brings a powerful, trained voice to "Maria" and "Tonight." Clad in a prim white dress suitable for a First Communion, Negri’s Maria, a child teetering on womanhood, approaches ﬁrst love with perpetual delight, and her soprano is incandescent. Shorn and determined as tomboy Anybodys, Trinity’s resident diva, Rachael Warren, keeps up with the imported dancers and has her musical moment to shine, taking on Marilyn Horne’s duties on the Bernstein-conducted album featuring Kiri te Kanawa and José Carreras to offer a sure, unornamented "Somewhere."
West Side Story is a bigger challenge than Annie or even My Fair Lady, and Dehnert’s Brecht-tinged production occasionally seems jumbled or ﬂat. What’s most moving about it is the quasi-religious touch the director brings to the love story, not just in the squeaky purity and sonorous sweetness of Tony and Maria, whose mock wedding is touching rather than hoky (featuring human mannequins as family stand-ins). Here and in the post-rumble scene where Tony and Maria, lifted on a bed of their fellow actors’ arms, consummate their love, the supporting players carry candles. At such times, this West Side Story, committed and unadorned, is more Romeo and Juliet than Broadway, and that can’t be bad.
Issue Date: May 7 - May 13, 2004
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