Dance is stellar in 'West Side Story'

Posted: May 27, 2005

Few musicals give a director the opportunity to form drama, music, song and dance into a seamless whole as does West Side Story, and the success of a production can be judged by how well this integration is achieved.

By that measure, the Walnut Street Theatre revival of the classic 1957 musical is largely a success. In the production directed by Bruce Lumpkin, the various art forms smoothly feed into, play off and enhance one another to form a complete, quite satisfying theatrical package, even if there are some nagging flaws in the individual elements.

West Side Story is one of the best dance musicals in the Broadway canon, and the dance is the strongest element of the Walnut production. Jerome Robbins, the original director and choreographer, used dance to express the restlessness and exuberance of the young people who love and fight in this Romeo-and-Juliet story placed within the context of warring teenage gangs on New York's West Side. Michelle Gaudette, the Walnut choreographer, has gathered a proficient cast of dancers (the most professional I've seen in a Walnut production) to faithfully re-create the wonderful Robbins choreography. More important, she has inspired them to infuse their dance with the energy and emotion it is meant to express.

The youthful vigor of the participants in the story also energizes the dramatic urgency of director Lumpkin's telling of the story. Chief among the youths, of course, are Tony, the former Jet who wants to give up gang life, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, who fall in love at first sight and pursue their romance despite, as Stephen Sondheim puts it in one of his lyrics, the "stay-with-your-own-kind" mentality toward ethnic mixing that prevailed at the time.

Michael Gillis' Tony and Christina DeCicco's Maria generate a sense of the strong romantic attachment between their characters that the audience must (but does not always) feel if the story and songs are to have emotional force. Individually, DeCicco makes an all-around excellent Maria in her portrayal of a fetching, sweet, girlish but determined young woman in the thrall of love. While Gillis is convincing as the ardent, risk-anything lover, in other contexts he has such clean-cut, corn-fed good looks that he seems more like an Iowa farm boy visiting New York than a guy who grew up on the gritty streets of a rough neighborhood.

The other actors offer very capable support, with adept performances coming from Colin Cunliffe as Riff, the leader of the Jets, Ron Nahass as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, and especially Michelle Aravena as Bernardo's girl, Anita. Aravena finds the passion and cynicism of this fiery, worldly wise young woman, and as a dancer she leads the actresses playing her Puerto Rican friends through a particularly lively and entertaining version of "America."

The singing is generally fine. With DeCicco's soaring soprano leading the way, the duets between her and Gillis on "Tonight," "Somewhere," and "One Hand, One Heart" make these songs as thrilling and moving as they should be.

However, some numbers are affected by the show's main defect - the lack of a strong musical presence. It may be due to a fault in the sound design, a deficiency of orchestral power, the inability of the orchestral sound to escape the orchestra pit, or some other reason, but the production suffers from a noticeable lack of musical force.

Without the marvelous music that Leonard Bernstein wrote for the show filling the theater with its rich sound, this very competently presented West Side Story is less than it could be.

Contact theater critic Douglas J. Keating at 215-854-5609 or dkeating@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/dougkeating.

West Side Story

Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, directed by Bruce Lumpkin, music direction by Douglass G. Lutz, choreography by Michelle Gaudette, settings by John Farrell, lighting by Jack Jacobs, costumes by Colleen McMillan, sound by Karin Graybash.

The cast: Michael Gillis, Christina DeCicco, Michelle Aravena, Colin Cunliffe, Ron Nahass, David Jackson, Lee Golden, Michael Longoria, others.

Playing at: Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut, through July 24. Tickets are $10-$65. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.wstonline.org.

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