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Broadway Blogs - WEST SIDE STORY Review Roundup and More...

Below are's blogs from Friday, March 20, 2009. Catch up below on anything that you might have missed from's bloggers!

WEST SIDE STORY Review Roundup
by Robert Diamond - March 20, 2009

West Side Story transposes Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to the gang-ridden streets of Manhattan in the 1950s. Instead of the Capulets and Montagues, we have the Puerto Rican Sharks versus the Anglo Jets. In place of Romeo and Juliet are Tony and Maria, two teens torn between ethnic loyalty and their intense, abrupt love for one another. The Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score includes "Tonight," "Somewhere," "Maria," "I Have a Love" and "Something's Coming." In what director/librettist Arthur Laurents says will convey authenticity, this version of the landmark musical will have Spanish interwoven in the dialogue and songs and gang members who are more thug life than thug lite.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: "It's certainly not hard to root for Matt Cavenaugh's handsome, likable Tony, or the angelic but warmly coquettish Maria of Josefina Scaglione, whose sterling lyric soprano is perfectly suited to the role. Karen Olivo's witty, fiery Anita is another asset; she may not be the best dancer to ever tackle the role, but Joey McKneely's reproduction of Jerome Robbins' choreography lets her shine and the others soar."

Ben Brantley, NY Times: "But this "West Side Story" is most enthralling when Tony and Maria cross the ethnic divide to pursue the pipe dream of happiness together. Mr. Cavenaugh (on Broadway in "Urban Cowboy" and "Grey Gardens") and Ms. Scaglione (a 21-year-old newcomer from Argentina) fulfill the starry-eyed obligations of playing young folks struck by a love that arrives like a lightning bolt, propelling them into an enchanted, oblivious world of purple declarations of passion. But they also provide specific and surprising shadings of character that make Tony and Maria at least partly responsible for their fate instead of passive victims."

David Rooney, Variety: "The consummate craftsmanship of "West Side Story," with its matchless ability to weave a solemn narrative through music and dance, still dazzles after more than 50 years. Leonard Bernstein's majestic score, in particular, is undiminished, shifting fluidly between blasts of syncopated brass fueled by testosterone and rage, and some of the most achingly beautiful expressions of love ever sung. So it's rewarding to report that after nearly three decades' absence from Broadway, this masterwork has been given the revival it deserves. Under the knowing direction of Arthur Laurents, the 1957 show remains both a brilliant evocation of its period and a timeless tragedy of disharmony and hate."

David Sheward, Back Stage: "An air of immediacy and spontaneity infuses all of Arthur Laurents' high-impact staging. He retains the original vibrancy of this street-gang Romeo and Juliet while giving it a harsh, jagged edge. Laurents, author of the book, has said he wanted to put danger back into the 1957 show, after too many productions (and the 1961 Oscar-winning film version) had made the rival Jets and Sharks seem too much like adorable musical-comedy versions of juvenile delinquents."

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: "Fortunately for a new generation yet to see this show produced at this level, it retains the heart, soul and original moves and sounds of a theatrical masterpiece with Leonard Bernstein melodies so beautiful they reverberate deep in your chest. And yet this new production also radically updates and rejuvenates the show's social milieu. It's an ensemble-driven change-rather than the individual lead performances-that dominates the feeling and impact of this production."

Melissa Rose Bernardo, Entertainment Weekly: "In fact, whenever Scaglione or Olivo are on stage the show kicks into gear. As Maria's square-jawed, star-crossed lover Tony, Matt Cavenaugh sings beautifully and melts convincingly into Scaglione's arms - but as soon as they stop pawing at each other, Cavenaugh goes cold. Venezuelan actor George Akram, as Shark leader Bernardo, tears up the floor with Olivo in the 'Dance at the Gym,' but the rest of his performance lacks the kick of his mambo. "

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: "Having staged an all-but-unimprovable revival of "Gypsy," Arthur Laurents has upped the ante by bringing "West Side Story" back to Broadway. Mr. Laurents's "West Side Story" is a spruced-up version of the show that took New York by storm 52 years ago, revised and reconfigured to appeal to a new generation of theatergoers. Nothing wrong with that -- "West Side Story" is a musical, not a sacred text -- but the results are disappointing, not just by comparison with the original "West Side Story" but in their own unconvincing right."

Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press: "The production is under the direction of Arthur Laurents, the man responsible for the musical's original book. He's done some tweaking of the star-crossed tale of Tony and Maria, young lovers from the two different New York gangs, but it still seems a little sketchy and slow, even with some surprising innovations. And its emotional impact is oddly muted."

Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter: "Bottom Line: A grittier, tougher, bilingual "West Side Story" that doesn't necessarily improve on the original."

Elisabeth Vincentelli, NY Post: "What do we remember of this production, then? Laurents may not like the answer, but it's precisely what the original was about: the singing and the dancing. "West Side Story" had not been seen on Broadway in almost three decades. For a new generation to discover it live is almost good enough."

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News: "Despite all those misgivings, there are riches in this 52-year-old treasure. Jerome Robbins' choreography, lovingly and dynamically re-created by Joey McKneely and danced by a huge ensemble, explodes across the stage - from the sizzling "Cool" and "The Dance at the Gym" to the serene "Somewhere," which is sung here by a young boy."


The Good Negro: I Know Where I've Been
by Michael Dale - March 20, 2009

If the gang at Madison Avenue were looking for the perfect spokesmodel to help win support for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, they couldn't have done better than Rosa Parks, a sweet-looking, modestly dressed woman who spoke with quiet dignity.  Or Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Franklin McCain, the conservatively dressed, well groomed college freshmen who started the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in.  White people who feared the consequences of desegregating America could have their views softened with a look at these clean-cut "credits to their race" (as the old saying went) who were everyday people just like them.  And if that sounds like a crass way of referring to the brave souls who put themselves on the front lines in the fight for equality, well that's a major point playwright Tracy Scott Wilson makes with her new drama, The Good Negro.

First presented by The Public Theater's LAB and now getting a swift, engrossing and, when appropriate, humorous mounting by director Liesl Tommy at the Public's LuEsther Hall, The Good Negro is an ambitious attempt to show the leaders of the civil rights movement as everyday human beings with normal flaws; perhaps making what they accomplished a greater achievement than if it were done by the demi-gods some would make them out to be.

With arena seating allowing most of the audience to look down on the action, set designer Clint Ramos takes advantage of the hall's deep playing space by providing a long hardwood platform and only sparse scene-setting pieces (Lap Chi Chu's lighting takes care of the rest) allowing for two or three locations to be easily observed at the same time.  Sometimes actors are right next to each other but their characters are in a different place.  Tommy introduces this story-telling technique right when the play commences, as Rev. James Lawrence (Curtis McClarin in a role highly suggestive of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) tries to inspire his weary Birmingham congregation members who are fed up with using non-violence when confronted with water hoses and attack dogs and are "tired of loving in the face of hate."

As he speaks, we also see a scene where a young black woman, Claudette (Joneice Abbott-Pratt), is beaten and arrested for taking her four-year-old daughter to use a whites only rest room because the one marked "colored" was out of service.  The non-threatening image of a pretty young mother and her child is seen by James to be a perfect media symbol around which to center a boycott of segregated stores.  He just needs to keep her uneducated, heavily-accented husband Pelzie (Francois Battiste) away from the press.  His associates - the streetwise activist, Henry (J. Bernard Calloway) and the button-down, European-educated Rutherford (LeRoy McClain) - bicker about the best methods of non-violent confrontation, not knowing that every word they say is being recorded by a pair of FBI agents (Quincy Dunn Baker and Brian Wallace).  The Feds have also recruited the help of thickheaded racist rabble-rouser, Rowe (Erik Jensen) to feed them inside information from the Ku Klux Klan.  (In one scene Rowe describes how he led what he figured to be an easy attack on non-violent black marchers, only to discover that the black people watching the march were not non-violent.)

While the play does stumble a bit during some overwritten scenes and repeated points that stretch the piece into two hours and forty-five minutes (including one intermission), Wilson also delivers some excellent moments that pull you into the story and allow the actors to respond with excellent work of their own.  Curtis McClarin performs Rev. Lawrence's sermons with rolling vocal cadences and the ferocity of a man possessed by a higher power.  As his wife, Corinne, Rachel Nicks hits the right chords of defiant heartbreak when an audio tape of her husband threatens both the cause and their marriage.  Francois Battiste's Pelzie is a beautifully realized portrait of a simple, empathetic man who sees his world crumble around him for a cause when all he wants is to be left alone.

With a very strong acting ensemble, fluid staging and passages of positively gripping writing, The Good Negro is well worth the bumps.

Photos by Joan Marcus:  Top:  Rachel Nicks and Curtis McClarin; Bottom:  Francois Battiste and Joniece Abbott-Pratt

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