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‘West Side Story’ Shines Again at Benedum

August 7, 2008

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 7–Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera saved the best for last.

“West Side Story,” the final production of its 2008 summer season, took the company out on a soaring and emotional high.

The well-polished and stylish production owes much to its ensemble of youthful performers portraying the Jets, Sharks and — pardon the dated expression — their girls.

It’s their show as they glide, leap and tumble through Mark Esposito’s choreography, which owes much to Jerome Robbins’ original work.

With a cast of 37, it’s no small task.

It’s a tribute to Esposito and director Van Kaplan that the cast performs as a seamless unit when necessary while exhibiting distinctive traits that show off their individuality.

Despite the 50-plus years since its 1957 debut on Broadway, the musical retains its youthfulness.

First and foremost, there’s that timeless score of now-classic songs by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

There are memorable love songs — “Maria,”"Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” and the plaintive “Somewhere.” There are humorous comedic classics — “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Bernstein also contributed jazzy musical passages that serve as a soundscape for pivotal moments in the show — “The Dance at the Gym,”"The Rumble” and the “Finale.”

Arthur Laurents’ updating of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” remains surprisingly affecting for a show where hoodlums call each other “daddio” and spar with fists, knives and zip-guns rather than assault rifles and automatic weapons.

That’s because human nature doesn’t change much from decade to decade.

Both the American-born Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks treat each other with a disdain and paranoia that is sadly contemporary.

And today’s youngsters continue to revel in the delights of discovering love and believing that somehow they are invulnerable to the very real dangers that surround them.

Kaplan keeps the tension high throughout, emphasizing the consequences that will unfold from everyone’s actions.

As Tony and Maria, Max von Essen and Ali Ewoldt make an attractive Romeo and Juliet couple filled with a proper balance of wonder, excitement and naivete. Both have lovely voices, which they put to good use on “One Hand, One Heart” and solos such as Tony’s

“Something’s Coming” and Maria’s “I Feel Pretty.”

Wilson Mendieta and Manoly Farrell provide nice performances and good contrast as the more mature and more carnal Puerto Rican lovers Bernardo and Anita.

Three veteran CLO actors enliven vivid, solid characters as the adults — Gene A. Saraceni as Doc, Tim Brady as the tough and pragmatic Lt. Schrank and Paul Palmer, who is playing in his 52nd CLO show by reprising the role of the much-ridiculed Officer Krupke.

With a revival of “West Side Story” in the works for a Broadway opening early next year, this might be the last chance area audiences will get to see the musical here for some time — at least until the revival’s national touring production turns up.

Even without that added impetus, this is a production worth seeing.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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