Slum Enchanted Evening

"Maria! I just met a girl named Maria/And suddenly that name will never be the same to me." Her real name is Katherine Stewart, and she is the main reason to see the revival of West Side Story, currently stirring up the sleepy suburbs at Mesa Amphitheatre.

West Side Story is as much a challenge as Hamlet, because it represents one of the pinnacles of the American musical theatre, the adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to the gang-infested concrete jungle of New York. Stretching its artistic wings to essay Shakespeare in a contemporary context, the Southwest Shakespeare Company has undertaken the show with mixed results. I suppose we can be grateful it steered clear of Verdi's Otello.

West Side Story boasts a complex score by Leonard Bernstein, dazzling lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an elegantly efficient book by Arthur Laurents. It was conceived, directed and choreographed on Broadway in 1957 by Jerome Robbins. Its creators are all bona fide members of the Theatre Hall of Fame, and the cross-fertilization of their genius marks one of the high points of modern theatre.

West Side Story played on Broadway for only 732 performances (losing the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics' Award to The Music Man). It was adapted to the screen by Robert Wise, and swept the 1961 Oscars, winning ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and, belatedly, recognition of its historic importance.

SSC has tackled this towering masterpiece with more aplomb than skill. A live orchestra of 15 struggles to master the sophisticated syncopations of Bernstein's rhythms. The sound is gratifyingly grand under Marcus Denton's baton, but the orchestra often betrays a level of expertise insufficient to the relentless demands of the score.

The enormous cast of 45 displays great heart and dedication, spread rather too thin over widely disparate levels of talent and training. Most everyone manages to carry a tune, but the dissonant harmonies are sometimes too subtle for the singers, resulting in occasional but acute aural discomfort for the audience. Particularly painful were Valerie Carroll's sour notes at the conclusion of the duet between Anita and Maria, "A Boy Like That."

At the center of this uneven cast, Katherine Stewart is a jewel who would be at home on a Broadway stage. Her rendition of "IFeel Pretty" is a showstopper. Stewart is beautiful, lithe and charismatic. Her acting is simultaneously simple and filled with nuance. Her voice rings through the night air with the ease of an angel. It is easy to see why Tony is speared in the heart by the arrows of love.

Tony is also well-cast and sung by Kenneth Alton, although his acting is less detailed and deep. Stewart and Alton's duets of "Tonight" and "There's a Place for Us" are rendered with all the supple richness these timeless melodies afford.

Todd K. Larsen makes a dashing impression as Riff, and Alex Gonzalez scores impressively as his nemesis, Bernardo. Linda Griego is believable as the tomboy Anybodys, a role that can seem insufferably cute in the wrong hands. Jody Ray Collins stands out in the beefy role of Diesel, and he moves with a lumbering agility that is endearing.

On the deficit side is the tenuous relationship between the orchestra and Christopher Williams during "Officer Krupke." The musicians scrambled to catch up to Williams, who plunged into the song like a teenager cannonballing into a swimming pool.

Besides Maria, the outstanding feature of this production is the athletic choreography by Larry Rollins. From the very beginning, the movements of the Jets and Sharks convey the macho competitiveness of the gangs. Rollins' choreography gracefully extends natural behavior, lifting ordinary physical life into the abstract realm of dance, celebrating the spirit that animates these urban lives.

Unfortunately, few of Rollins' dancers can fulfill his ambitious plan, but even when the execution is sloppy, the beauty of the design glimmers with inspiration.

Despite these shortcomings, director Tracy Dressler has mounted a coherent and fluid production on a scale that is daunting. She is greatly aided by the marvelous, expansive set by Kimb Williamson, who has designed an urban world replete with graffiti, chain-link fences, tenements and a balcony for the lovers. The colors are muted, but give variety to the pervasive gray that dominates the concrete scene.

One of the major accomplishments of this production is that the musical seemed fresh and relevant nearly 40 years after its conception. The lyrics remain vibrant: "When you're a Jet and the shit hits the fan/You've got brothers around, you're a family man." Protesting that we live in a country of laws, the authorities are stunned by the double murders of Riff and Bernardo. They appeal to the kids: "What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You make the world lousy!" To which a gang member retorts, "That's the way we found it."

On a live stage, SSC's production, however erratic, does blaze to life. In the wake of the O.J. Simpson verdict, we are once again reminded of the deep divisions that polarize our society. West Side Story acknowledges that chasm, and poignantly leads us toward healing. Although African Americans are conspicuously absent from this story, the aching for justice "somewhere, sometime" echoes eloquently.--Marshall W. Mason

Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of West Side Story continues through Sunday, October 14, at Mesa Amphitheatre, Center and University. For more details, see Theatre listing inThrills.

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Marshall W. Mason