Thursday, June 6, 2013

Love rumbles on: 'West Side Story' kicks up a storm at Clowes Hall



More than legal reasons justify Jerome Robbins' name in a box forever on production title pages  of 'West Side Story." For all the collective star power that gave it birth, West Side Story is his show.

The choreographer-director's innovations in Broadway dance for the 1957 story of star-crossed lovers and gang warfare in the formerly rundown West Side of Manhattan are a milestone in theatrical history.  Robbins was the difficult genius at the top of a creative team also including Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book).
Jerome Robbins' choreography made West Side Story historic

The Broadway in Indianapolis touring production, seen in its second night Wednesday at Clowes Hall, fully reflects the primacy of dance in the show. The first act is where the menace of rival native-born and Puerto Rican gangs needs to be brought to fever pitch before the pathos of Tony and Maria's love can tumble toward tragedy in Act 2.

The Prologue showcased the men of the Sharks and the Jets in displays of bravado and hostility that were breathtaking in their fast pace, full of physical insults and glancing blows set amid sweeping side-to-side rushing. This set the high standard soon to be matched by the frenetic "Dance at the Gym" and the Puerto Rican women's tour de force, "America," led by the tireless effervescence of Michelle Alves as Anita. By the time the Jets' Riff (Theo Lencicki) forcefully put the brakes on the gunning engines of his fellows in "Cool," it was clear that every move, phrase and paragraph in the choreographic rhetoric would have something precise to contribute to the action.

But it's hard to celebrate Robbins exclusively when it comes to assessing the enduring appeal of the 56-year-old show. Coming into his own as a lyricist, the young Sondheim was ready to show how to make a song suitable to its dramatic moment in "Maria," heartstoppingly sung Wednesday by Addison Reid Coe as Tony. To frame a love song around a name, to make its very sound stand in for a person just met, was a stroke of genius, and Bernstein's tune totally serves that purpose in its soaring ardor.

Laurents' book, while loaded with old-fashioned slang (perhaps wisely rattled off by the Jets in this production), has wit and poignancy, and dovetails into Sondheim's lyrics neatly. Bernstein, the product of Harvard and Tanglewood, never lost his show-biz street smarts despite the golden cultural pedigree. He cannily praised a song added late to the show, "Something's Coming," in a letter to his wife (visiting family in Chile) this way: "It's really going to save his character...it gives Tony balls — so that he doesn't emerge as just a euphoric dreamer."

Tony indeed is in danger of not seeming real enough; it's often hard to believe he ever was in a gang. Coe's portrayal came up right to the edge of falling into this inherent softness.  He's mainly tough and courageous in love, and even in that arena  he pales next to Maria.  The smitten Puerto Rican was lathered in charm in Maryjoanna Grisso's performance. The lovers had that instant locked-in fascination with each other that would seem implausible had not Shakespeare made such a headstrong affair so real in Romeo and Juliet.

J. Michael Duff drew from the small touring orchestra vivid playing, with a mite too much overlaid synthesizer in the mix. The individual miking of the actors — today's technical norm, admittedly with many advantages — robbed the great "Tonight" quintet of some of its contrapuntal excitement, as the vocal parts blended all too well.

A couple of other minor annoyances:  Maria's balcony was noisily moved into position  during the last part of Tony's "Maria" solo, and the dream ballet and vocal ensemble "Somewhere" got off to a shaky start with an uncertainly pitched vocal solo.

On the whole, however, this is a blazingly effective West Side Story, with the social clash so typical of neighboring urban ethnic groups outlined brilliantly, down to the latter-day inclusion of more Spanish lines than the original. That almost transformed one of the songs by giving a heavily nostalgic cast to Maria's radiant "I Feel Pretty." It became a whirlwind declaration of self-assertion, rising above a heritage she couldn't bear to reject and buoyed by a forbidden love about to fall into the chasm of hatred that she and her lover had naively hoped to bridge.