West Side Story

Tonight is not the night for this musical.

I expected a lot more of Central City Opera's fiftieth-anniversary production of West Side Story. I've been in love with Leonard Bernstein's music since I first heard it decades ago, and over the past few years, I've listened to many gorgeous voices in the intimate and historic Central City Opera House, with its clear acoustics. Joining these two elements seemed to promise dizzying pleasure.

Back in the '50s, the idea of updating Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — setting it on the mean streets of New York and having gang members substitute for the battling Montagues and Capulets — was daring and revelatory. At the time, West Side Story's liberal humanism — why couldn't these kids recognize that the ills that drove them crazy were social and structural, and just learn to get along? — would have been widely seen as progressive rather than hopelessly naive. And while today the script, with its ancient slang, is unquestionably dated, the issues it explores are still very much with us: violence, xenophobia, poverty and hopelessness, and the plight of our country's immigrants, who are simultaneously used for cheap labor and reviled as the cause of unemployment and economic failure.

Gregory Turay (left) and Chris Cobb Olsen are ready to rumble in West Side Story.
Gregory Turay (left) and Chris Cobb Olsen are ready to rumble in West Side Story.

Bernstein's score holds up, too, transforming what might have been just a '50s artifact into a genuine work of art. Gregory Turay, who plays Tony, has a melting, expressive tenor, and Sarah Jane McMahon's rich soprano moved me to tears on Maria's "I Have a Love." Natalia Zisa is a lively Anita, and Anthony Peyla brings graceful power to the part of Maria's brother, Bernardo. But while casting a black actor in the role of Doc — the kindly, impotent drugstore owner who tries to stop the mayhem — was a terrific idea, Chaz Grundy hugely overplays the role.

Director Ken Cazan also had the right idea in making the production less sanitized and slick than the movie version of the musical. Courtesy of set designer Cameron Anderson, the action takes place in a dilapidated New York in front of a crumbling wall, bricks and plaster exposed. Jerome Robbins's choreography, re-created by Daniel Pelzig as faithfully as possible given the small stage he had to work with, still sometimes zings. But though the opening dance number is appropriately explosive, these dancers just don't come across as gangbangers. The acting throughout is at best prosaic, and at worst purely awful — with the notable exception of Mark Rubald, who owns the stage every time he strolls onto it as the corrupt cop. And the fake Puerto Rican accents of all the Sharks simply set your teeth on edge.

 
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