AISLE SAY Philadelphia


Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on a Conception of Jerome Robbins
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin
Walnut Street Theatre / 9th & Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA
Playing through July 24, 2005
Box Office: (215) 574-3550

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

If any American musical were ever created by a dream team West Side Story would be it. The story originates with Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", the book is by one of our great playwright's, Arthur Laurents, the lyrics are by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim and the music is by the composing giant,Leonard Bernstein. If it isn't the greatest piece of American musical theater ever written, then let's just suffice it to say that it's a work of art. This musical also happens to be my seminal influence for throwing myself into the arms of this black hole we call the theater as an actress, a singer and a composer. That said, I'll try to address the current production at the Walnut Street Theatre which is running through July 24th.

This production runs the gamut from the truly wonderful to the truly not so good. Truly wonderful are the leads that Mr. Lumpkin has cast. Christina DeCicco as Maria and Michael Gillisas Tony are both very young, very passionate and very good. Colin Cunliffe as Riff and Michelle Aravena as Anita are both excellent as two true "triple threats". (For the uninitiated, a "triple threat" means that a performer is equally talented as an actor, a singer and a dancer.) Jenny Lee Ramos as Anybodys and the four non-singing roles, Doc (Lee Golden), Shrank (David Jackson), Krupke (John Peakes), Glad Hand (Dan Schiff) were all terrific. Especially gratifying was Lee Golden as Doc. Usually a throw away role, Mr. Golden imbues this helpless candy store owner with the frustrated voice of reason crying in the wilderness. And when he tells Tony that Maria is dead -- it's a very moving moment.

The choreography by Michelle Gaudette is fast paced and exciting -- alternating between segments that are highly balletic to actual stage combat. But the fantasy ballet with the ghosts of the dead Biff and Bernardo while Tony & Maria are singing, "Somewhere", unfortunately, is too distracting and detracts from the song.

The highlight of the evening was the balcony scene where the lovers (Tony & Maria) sing "Tonight" which is very much alive with lots of kissing, lots of passion and lots of youthful exuberance. It's probably the most realistic version I've ever seen. And later on, Mr. Lumpkin has added that the lovers are discovered in bed, which is true to the original book and the original Romeo and Juliet (where the lovers marry and then sleep together) -- which works very well. Also having Maria wipe up Tony's blood with her shawl at the finale was very poignant.

Unfortunately, since the director has cast such a young Tony, he has had to cast the Jets the same way. So, you have a group of very young men who appear to be just adequate with the very demanding dance choreography and not strong enough in the vocal or acting departments. A case in point -- are "The Jet Song" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" which are two of the weakest moments in the show. But the performers are only partially to blame. Part of the onus has to go to the musical direction - because every single tempo was like a runaway train. Okay, if the leads are having trouble with the semi-operatic nature of the score, then sure you can speed up those ballads a bit. But when you race through numbers like "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" nobody hears the lyrics and none of the jokes land. And there are plenty of jokes in both those numbers - but we didn't get them. Arguably, West Side Story has probably one of the most demanding Broadway scores to have to play, but therein lies the beauty of it. I also had a hard time even hearing the drummer at times.

Done in superb perspective (and with great lighting effects by Jack Jacobs), the set by John Farrell is phenomenal. We feel just like the Sharks and the Jets, closed in by Doc's Candy Store, city buildings, Maria's window and fire escape, a chain link fence and above us the elevated train. But I simply didn't "get" the costumes. Since the script was not altered, the set depicts a period cityscape of the early 60's and in the program it states that the action takes place in the summer of 1961-- why were some of the actors wearing clothes that looked like they belonged in the show "Rent"? Some of the male dancers were actually wearing cargo pants and urban camouflage -- which was not around in 1961. So I found them to be confusing and not helpful to the look of the production.

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