Thursday, January 17, 2013
Theater review: West Side Story‘s national tour jets into Bass Hall
It's what musical theater should be: Exciting!
FORT WORTH Simply a spectacular feast for the eyes, ears and soul, West Side Story’s National Tour sticks to the original American classic, yet adds refreshed and exciting new elements.
Leonard Bernstein took the musical to new heights of seriousness in his 1957 production, West Side Story, based loosely on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It's true subject was the growing menace of gang warfare (or "juvenile delinquency," as it was known then) in the context of racial tensions created by clashes between whites and Puerto Rican immigrants. Consciousness of racism was very much on the rise in the U.S. of the late fifties, and Bernstein, a life-long liberal, wanted to portray the issue in an uncompromising fashion.
This is also an extraordinarily sophisticated musical work. For example, the complex layering in the reprise of "Tonight" with each individual or group voicing its own anticipations for the evening.
Originally the script was to have dealt with a Christian/Jewish romance (called East Side Story), but Bernstein decided to choose a more immediately relevant theme. Ironically, neither Broadway nor Hollywood was able to rise above its own institutionalized racism to cast a Latina actress as Maria.
The gangs of that time were much less well-armed than today's and the exigencies of stage and film production in the fifties forced the libretto to use somewhat censored language (somewhat dated now, but fairly hip then), so that the modern viewer may be tempted to look at this story of gang warfare as somewhat innocent and naive. But at a deeper level, the hatreds and frustrations articulated here are authentic reflections of an ongoing American tragedy.
West Side Story features classic dances by Jerome Robbins, especially in the hyper-athletic masculine style pioneered by choreographer Agnes de Mille in Rodeo and Oklahoma, and several extraordinarily beautiful songs, many of which have become classics. Bernstein, at this time the most famous conductor in the world, leading the New York Philharmonic and exponent of a wide range of classical and popular music, had the skills to write music considerably more complex that contained in most musicals. The musical style is based on hard-hitting big band jazz and Latin-beat music like the mambo. Popular dance music had not settled exclusively on rock and roll yet when this work was being written.
This most recent touring production simply shines with talent, respect to the original Broadway production, and creative new elements that take this timeless story to wonderful levels of entertainment.
Direction by David Saint never misses a beat (pun intended) keeping the story flowing well and the action palpable. He creates beautiful stage presentations in every scene and draws your attention to specific locations/performers where the story demands. You are kept fully involved with his performers’ actions in dramatic scenes that flow seamlessly into the beautiful choreography. It is simply a stunning marriage of acting and dance that Mr. Saint has created that unfolds before your eyes!
J. Michael Duff’s amazing talent as Musical Director and Conductor are highlighted in every note sung and played throughout the performance. He handles the extremely difficult score with his musicians as if they were playing “twinkle, twinkle, little star” with grace and musical perfection. Never once does the music overpower a singer onstage, yet when it is time for the orchestra to shine with the brilliant score, he lets them do it with a triumphant sound that echoes through Bass Performance Hall splendidly. His talented vocalists show onstage they have been guided by the best in every note sung. Brilliant levels of dynamics in every song keep the vocals fresh and always stunning to hear. Never once are you disappointed with the sound emanating from, or in front of, the stage!
The choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely is simply extraordinary! He takes his talented cast to wonderful levels of perfection in every moment of dance. There isn’t a step out of place or a visual picture you aren’t in awe of. Every time there is movement or dance you are engaged and just pulled into the moment.
The scenic design by James Youmans in this production has some exciting new elements that compliment yet respect the originals. I simply love the new “bridge scene” that comes alive before your eyes in a spectacular transition. You are just immersed in a wonderfully original, three dimensional optical illusion that leaves you in awe. This is just one of the fresh new aspects to the scenic design that only enhances this new tour.
The lighting design by Howell Binkley can only be called AMAZING! Stunning, rich hues of color always wash the stage in every scene. Intimate moments are highlighted in ambers, blues and reds while full stage action enjoys a full color spectrum of lighting. Subtle cues merging into one another and starkly abrupt changes in every implementation add a splendor to the production that pulls you into the story. A brilliant job Mr. Binkley, simply brilliant!
Now to the cast - EXTRODINARY!! Every person on the stage puts in an effort like I have never seen on stage. There is never a moment you are let down or disappointed by what is being presented to you in song, dance or acting. This entire cast will blow you away with talent and leave you speechless when the show is done. Every member of the cast DESERVED the standing ovation they received, and I‘m sure will receive many more times throughout the life of this tour.
The show’s main characters, Maria, played by MaryJoanna Grisso, and Tony, played by Addison Reid Coe, create nothing less than spectacular musical magic on stage! I’ve seen dozens of productions of West Side Story and I believe this is the best pairing of the leading couple I have ever seen.
MaryJoanna Grisso is a beautiful, superb singer with every note she sings. Her presentation as an actress, from funny, laid back scenarios to emotionally charged, heart-wrenching moments, never fails and is pure perfection. This stunning actress will, I’m sure, have nothing but success in any endeavor she undertakes. By the way, I learned after the performance Ms. Grisso had been very ill in prior weeks, even causing her to miss several performances and this was her first night back. You would have never known, and if she was “off” in any way, I can’t wait to see her full on. Brava MaryJoanna!!!
Addison Reid Coe is no less spectacular onstage than his counterpart in the show. His vocals soar, his acting is stellar and his interpretation of the character is perfect. Playing such an iconic role can be highly difficult and cause problems in interpretation. Mr. Coe, however, never suffers from overzealousness and presents to you a wonderfully well-rounded character in the story on stage.
Anita, played by Michelle Alves, is stupendous! She gives an exciting new freshness to the role in this production that you will be endeared to. Her sassiness will make you smile, and her deep angst and troubles make you deeply feel for her on stage. Vocally, her Anita is unmatched and her characterization is spot-on.
Guy Mandia, Jr. as Action shines on stage. Every movement, every note and every line delivered is what musical theatre should be… EXCITING! His portrayal is perfectly delivered and never once does he take the role over the top which can be a problem in the show. Every moment he is on stage is simply a pleasure to watch!
Bernardo, played by Andrés Acosta, is another thrilling performer in the show. His version of the character digs in deep with passion and perfect delivery. Never once are you diverted from the storyline with his high caliber performance, and in every moment he shines in this role.
As I mentioned, the entire ensemble is nothing less than perfect in this show, but the dancing… all I can say is WOW!! Very close detail has been given to keep to the original choreography and it is represented by this cast with stunning beauty! You won’t believe your eyes when full ensemble dances occur with great perfection and execution. Again, the talent in this cast is un-matched by any other performing the show I’ve ever seen.
The exciting new tour of this American classic is one you don’t want to miss while it’s here in Ft. Worth. You will leave the show with a song in your head, a smile on your face and stunning talent you’ll be talking about for days afterwards!!
On another exciting note, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ms. Grisso, Mr. Coe and Mr. Duff, and that will follow this review release. You’ll get some wonderful insight to these professionals, what has brought them to the stage and where they want to go from here. It was a pleasure and I’m sure you’ll enjoy some “backstage” insight to the world of professional performance!
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