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Modern Accents on the West Side

West Side Story Directed by David Eggar At the Loeb Mainstage Through May 4

By Elijah T. Siegler

Only the truly committed or the soon-to-be-committed would attempt a large-scale musical on the Loeb Mainstage. The stage is huge and needs a huge set. The room eats sound and requires strong voices.

On the surface, David Eggar's production of West Side Story has a professional feel. Matt and Mark Buchanan's set works well. The multi-story freeway bridge which stretches across the stage looks great, and such neat gimmicks as a car on cinder blocks and a working video game have been placed on the stage. The orchestra is lively, and, as conducted by Roger Neill, it versatilely slips from a waltz to a salsa.

You know the story. Tony (Brad Rouse) meets Maria (China Forbes), and it's love at first sight. But her brother, Bernardo (Dean Shapiro), is the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican street gang, and Tony's a member of the Jets, a rival "American" gang. The young lovers want to stop an upcoming rumble, but when Bernardo kills Jet leader Riff (John Ducey), Tony avenges his friend's death by offing Bernardo.

Tony runs away, Maria tries to send him a message and events speed rapidly to a tragic conclusion. Sound familiar? It should. The characters and major plot devices in West Side Story correspond almost exactly with Romeo and Juliet.

But where Romeo and Juliet is timeless, West Side Story is dated. It is very clearly set in New York City of the 1950s amongst teenage social turmoil and a flood of new immigrants. And as a result, Eggar's modernization of the script meets with only partial success.

Eggar and choreographer Christine Van Kipnis write in the program notes: "Our intent is not to realistically portray any particular time period or location; rather we are using dance, drama and music to reflect on and explore different aspects of social tension." The problem is that nothing short of a new script can release the story from its period setting. No matter how dark and violent Van Kipnis and Eggar choose to make the story, stylized fight choreography will always evoke memories of Robin kapowing the Riddler in the old Batman series. And the war council in Doc's drug store seems quaint when compared with the drive-by shootings and crack dens of today.

The script is updated to include profanity (at times it seems every fourth word the Jets speak is "fuck") which soon becomes grating. Pop culture references are good for a cheap laugh, but the "Nintendoes" and "Telemundos" are more cutesy than clever. Making the Jets co-ed adds an interesting sexual dynamic and some talent to the Jets line-up (particularly an electric Eisa Davis as A-rab, the "cool" Jet). But, even today, there are very few female gang members.

Eggar's interpretation is most unsatisfactory in the second half of West Side Story. A dream sequence which combines the allegretto movement of Beethoven's seventh symphony, Tony and Maria's courtship replayed as transvestite vaudeville and rather poor lighting leaves the audience more confused than amazed. And in the last two scenes, the catchy songs have all been sung, and the dancing is over. What remains is a rather explicit attempt at rape and Tony's death. Instead of being tragic, these scenes feel sensationalist.

Even professional musicals do not always succeed in finding performers who can sing, dance and act with equal facility. So it is no surprise that West Side Story has a shortage of the trebly talented. Eggar seems to have cast the show with acting as his first priority. Consequently the dancing is occasionally sloppy. This problem is minimized by Van Kipnis' excellent choreography, particularly impressive in the large-scale dance numbers.

A more serious problem--the voices are often drowned out by the orchestra. In this respect the women fare better than the men. Forbes is not only funny and sympathetic as Maria, but her singing is near perfect. As her best friend Anita, Cori Peterson is a natural. Even Rita Moreno fans will like her.

As for the men, Ducey and Andrew Dieterich, as manic Jet Action, have good onstage rapport and cool haircuts. But their voices are not strong enough to push through the thumping percussion and brass in numbers like "Jet Song" and "Officer Krupke." And Rouse is a merely adequate singer and actor. It is hard to imagine Maria falling in love with someone so tame.

Despite flaws in concept and execution, West Side Story is enjoyable to watch. A capable, energetic cast; Bernstein and Sondheim's classic songs; and excellent production values make this show worth seeing. In the end, audience members will have to decide for themselves whether Eggar should have retold West Side Story with such a modern accent.

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