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Love and war
Brushing up West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate
West Side Story
Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Amanda Dehnert. Musical direction by Karl Shymanovitz. Choreography by Sharon Jenkins. Set by David Jenkins. Costumes by William Lane. Lighting by John Ambrosone. Sound by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. Fight choreography by Craig Handel. With Tommar Wilson, Tony Yazbeck, Wilson Mendieta, Nina Negri, Courtney Laine Mazza, Nick Sanchez, Joey Calveri, Wi-Moto Nyoka, and Rachael Warren. At Trinity Repertory Company through June 6.
Kiss Me, Kate
Music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Samuel and Bella Spewack. Directed by Alan Coats. Musical direction by Antony Geralis. Choreography by Lee Wilkins. Set by Tal Sanders. Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, with additional costumes by David R. Zyla. Lighting by David Neville. Sound by John A. Stone. With George Dvorsky, Rachel deBenedet, Sean Palmer, Deb Leamy, David Coffee, David Dollase, James Van Treuren, Carolyn Saxon,

You can do worse than to steal from Shakespeare, as two classic American musicals currently on area stages prove — that is, when they’re not proving the curmudgeon’s adage that they don’t make ’em like they used to. At Trinity Repertory Company, inventive director Amanda Dehnert paints a fresh coat of graffiti on that inner-city rewrite of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story. And North Shore Music Theatre offers a polished, straightforward staging of that Noises Off take on The Taming of the Shrew, Kiss Me, Kate. Ah, if we could just put a stake through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s heart and make Leonard Bernstein and Cole Porter live again!

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 Maltese-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.

Kiss Me, Kate, too, incorporates a fair amount of the Bard, but this 1948 show, Cole Porter’s greatest hit, is also Broadway at its clever, tuneful best. As with The Taming of the Shrew, which is neatly telescoped into it, you just have to inure yourself to the notion that insufficiently obedient women deserve a bit of physical pummeling. As if acknowledging the problem, the North Shore Music Theatre production uses the tweaked libretto of the Tony-winning 2000 revival (the first on Broadway in nearly 50 years) that includes a droll reference to Noël Coward’s assertion that "some women should be struck regularly, like gongs."

Even if Kiss Me, Kate mirrored The Story of O rather than The Taming of the Shrew, it would have in its favor its wonderful score. One great song after another reminds you how pathetic it is that Cats ran for years on the treadmill of one memorable tune. As if to rub it in, the production, like the Michael Blakemore–directed Broadway revival, throws in "From this Moment On," which was written for the 1950 Out of This World.

The show’s plot was supposedly suggested by the way in which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, touring in Shrew, fought as much off stage as on. Here egotistical actor/manager Fred Graham has lured his divorced wife, film star Lilli Vanessi, back to the theater to star with him in a musical version of Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy. It is evident from the first that, despite their arch sparring, the two are still in love. So when the opening-night flowers Fred has sent to his latest conquest, the shaky ingénue Lois Lane, are by mistake delivered to Lilli and she thinks they’re for her until she discovers the note, war breaks out — in Shakespeare’s Padua as well as in the dressing rooms. To complicate matters, Lois’s actor main man, Bill Calhoun, has lost a bundle gambling and signed Fred’s name to the IOU. This brings on the pair of insouciant thugs who wind up in tights and steal the second act with that immortal guide to wowing the dames with the Bard, "Brush Up Your Shakespeare."

The choreography at NSMT, where much dancing gets done in the aisles leading to the arena stage, doesn’t dazzle like that of the Broadway revival. But the Beverly theater has mounted some opulent, well-sung productions of late, including last season’s Pacific Overtures and West Side Story, and this is another one. The rich Elizabethan and jauntily sensuous 1940s costumes that won Martin Pakledinaz a Tony are featured — with Rachel deBenedet’s Lilli looking smashing in all of hers, from the elegant black pleats and white satin of her entry togs to shrew Katharine’s red-and-gold finery in the final scene. There is a 13-piece orchestra in the pit. And the singers — once again, crystalline soprano deBenedet must be singled out — are in good voice, whether in the jazz-tinged backstage numbers or the more baroque melodies of the Shrew musical.

NSMT favorite George Dvorsky is a solid Fred/Petruchio with a fine voice he needn’t strain. Ringletted Deb Leamy is a pert, pragmatic Lois, bringing sultry spring and a pleasant, unaffected voice to "Why Can’t You Behave?", "Tom, Dick or Harry," and that upbeat nod to Ernest Dowson, "Always True to You (In My Fashion)." But it’s hard to compete with deBenedet, who concludes a furniture-kicking rendition of the Gilbert-and-Sullivanish "I Hate Men" in a splayed crouch that’s almost a split, holding the last note from here to eternity.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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