BWW Reviews: Charisma, Chemistry and Craft Coalesce in WEST SIDE STORY at Orpheum

By: Nov. 08, 2013
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The touring Broadway revival of West Side Story just opened at The Orpheum Theatre, Memphis. This iconic musical by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet set in mid-twentieth-century New York City.

Though the world has changed radically since the show's landmark debut in 1957, this reimagined version holds up. Granted, the production has solid "bones"--a time-honored tale, an extraordinary score, and the inspiration of Jerome Robbins' original choreography, but an exact replica of the classic wouldn't go over today. This show owes its success to sensibility, synergy and progressive artistic vision.

Casting Director Joy Dewing brought in accomplished, age appropriate talent. Director David Saint utilized his cast to best advantage. The actors performed with a lot of heart, creating palable tension between rivals, steamy chemistry between lovers and aching youthful earnestness we understand.

I suspect it helps that this cast is of a generation that came of age in a digital, post 911-world. In a sense, Tony and Maria's 1950's may be as abstract to them Romeo and Juliet's 1560's, while their own teen years are still a vivid memory. Understanding their characters from this vantage point may be why this show feels so honest and free of period piece nostalgia. Even the "Somewhere" Ballet (that was omitted from the 1961 Film) and the Jets' pulp novel fifties slang hit the mark. In 2008, the script went bilingual, so that the Sharks sing and speak street Spanish at well-chosen junctures. I happen to love that update in principle and this cast makes it work well.

Tony (Jarrad Biron Green) has a callow sincerity that kept me emotionally invested even though I knew his ultimate fate from the get-go. He sang "Something's Coming" as if he were expressing every thought for the first time. Lovely Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso) charms us with spunk, sweetness and a sublime soprano voice. Anita (Michelle Alves) is sultry and passionate with show-stopping song and dance skills. Bernardo (Michael Spencer Smith) is intense and compelling as Anita's bad boy Latin lover.

Anybody's, the tomboy Jet wanabee, is a tough role because it's written to serve as a plot device, but Rosalie Graziano brings the character to vibrant life and full dimension. This petite fireball has an expressive face, an angelic voice and phenomenal dramatic instincts. This is her debut tour, and I predict she'll be a rising star.

The support characters are all solid: Tough Jet leader Riff (Benjiman Dallas Redding), maniacal Action (Michael Ehlers), Maria's suitor, Chino (Emilio Ramos)--more genteel than I've seen in other shows. Interesting choice and it works. The three older supporting characters, Officer Krupke (F. Tyler Burnett), Lt. Schrank (Skip Pipo) and Doc (Mark Fishback) are cast and played predictably, but the performances are good.

Of course, all shows face challenges, especially near the beginning of a tour. There were some moments when the (superb) orchestra matched or exceeded the singer's volume to the point that lyrics were blurred. The song "Tonight" was watered down by unfocused staging and off-kilter lighting. (Tony was overlit, everyone else was under-lit which hid their faces.) Meanwhile, Anita was too far upstage to effectively sell her powerful solo and Maria was rolled in on her balcony, mid-verse--a corny move that left the stage visually unbalanced. Instead of being swept away by "Tonight," I found myself searching for a focal point. Likewise, the following rumble scene was a bit underlit. That combined with an aesthetically interesing, but slightly obstructing chain link barrier, left me feeling one step removed from this Act One climax. Finally, "Gee, Officer Krupke," had a wondferul boisterous, beginning. (The original cleverness of the song was its suggested obscenity i.e. "Dear Officer Krupke, Krup you!") But this time around, instead of sprinkling borderline vulgarity in like salt, blatant vulgarity was ladled on like gravy. The high school boys seated behind me tittered at the grossout sexual gestures. The grownups seated in front of me squirmed.

Krupke antics aside, it's a spectacular show. Joey McKneely's coreography is thrilling. Scenic Designer, James Youmans, Lighting Designer, Howell Binkley) and Costume Designer, David C. Woolard create a textured urban world with evocative color palettes that heightened every mood. Several times (most notably the "Dance at the Gym" and "Somewhere.") scene changes evoked an audible gasp from the audience--in other words, breathtaking.

In this particular case, I wouldn't feel right if I didn't name each member of the ensemble.They're not your standard interchangeable chorus line. Every one brought something exciting, memorable and unique to the stage. They are: Alexander Cruz, Mark Deler, Nathaniel Dombek, Alejandro Fonseca, Patrick Graver, Kevin Hack, Krissy Hoagland, Dana Hunter, Beau Hutchings, Amanda Johns, Justin Joseph Laguna, Suki Lopez, Emilio Ramos, Hillary Danielle Reiter, Shaun Repetto, Ricardo Rique-Sanchez, Sam Rohloff, Ashley Talluto, Ashlynn Thomas, Matt Webster and Kristin Yancy.

Many recent musicals feel calculated, corporatized and over-produced. This show, is pure quality living art. I'm confident that some of the young cast members in this forever old, forever new story will go on to distinguished careers.

As the actors took their final bows--in the most simple, modest curtain call I've seen in a while--The audience rose to its feet. This was a sincere, old school standing ovation, not the obligatory kind that's become de rigeur in recent years. The integrity of the crowd's response, mirrored the integrity of the show.

West Side Story runs from November 5 - 10, 2013

Tickets are available at the official Orpheum Theatre website, The Orpheum Box Office (901.525.3000), the ticket counter at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, and all Ticketmaster centers (901.743.ARTS).

Photo by Carol Rosegg


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