Wistful for “West Side Story”

My daughter called from New York City just as I was heading out the door for opening night of “West Side Story” at ASU Gammage. The musical is set in the Upper West Side of NYC. My daughter’s living in Lower Manhattan, and she can jump on a subway and hit a Broadway show any time she wants to now. Assuming, of course, that she’s finished her homework. 

It’s her first year in the B.F.A. in acting program at Pace University. This was the first time, in a long time, that I’ve attended a show at ASU Gammage without Lizabeth– and I missed her. It was odd, after the show, to actually get in my car and drive home alone. No waiting at the stage door hoping to get cast member autographs. No late night mother/daughter “In-N-Out Burger” run. 

You can enjoy West Side Story at ASU Gammage through Sunday, Oct 2

Still, I had a great time at the show — which felt like one giant music and movement fest. Theater buffs know it as a classic piece of musical theater — the work of Arthur Laurents (book, director), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography). But it’s a “must see” for music and dance afficionados too.

“West Side Story,” originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, opened on Broadway in 1957. The revival on which this tour is based opened on Broadway in 2009 — and had 748 regular performances. Reading the cast and creative team bios for this production reveals a truly stellar team with some serious street cred. That’s not the case for every touring show, but it was evident Tuesday night.

The strength and consistency of Kyle Harris’ (Tony) performance translates into a powerful production overall. Without a top-notch Tony, it’s hard to find the story believable or compelling. Harris’ Tony feels innocent and earnest. He commands the stage with a robust yet tender vocal performance.

Ali Ewoldt’s (Maria) comedic skills were evident early on. And while many in the audience were clearly wowed by her operatic vocal performance, there were times it felt like too much of a good thing. I enjoyed Harris’ and Ewoldt’s solos more than their duets. The mix just didn’t work for me every time.

The dancing is remarkable throughout — but especially fun to watch during “Dance at the Gym” (Company), “America” (Anita, Rosalia and Shark Girls) and “The Rumble” (Company). All those dance teachers who must have harped through the years about pointing those toes deserve a slew of thank you notes.

The scenic design by James Youmans, which is perfectly lovely to begin with, grows more impressive as the show unfolds — becoming a real visual feast of line and color during “The Rumble” (Act I) and “Somewhere” (Act II). Lighting design by Howell Binkley feels a bit distracting during Act I, but is truly stunning during Act II. Think rich hues of purple and blue, and a bright white light as youth once divided begin to envision a world without hate.

Still, I could have closed my eyes throughout and been perfectly satisfied with my evening — thanks to a captivating performance by the “West Side Story” orchestra, which features music director and conductor John O’Neill plus associate conductor Paul McCaffrey. Also Daniel Bailey and Kyle Norris on keyboards, Rick Donato on drums and Michael Meza on trumpet.

Although the show is recommended for ages 13 and up, a few people did bring younger children along. The use of bad language and such is minimal in my book, but there are several sexual gestures that some parents won’t take all that kindly to. Best to follow the age recommendations unless you see the show first and then decide it’s okay to take your kids along for a second run at it.

Just pretend, if you take a teen along, that you’ve never heard any of the lingo used in the show. Hoodlum. Dame. Creep. Dig it. Daddy-o. So few of us have yet to come to terms with being on the planet long enough to see classic shows through multiple revivals.

Parents who take teens may find the show’s depiction of bigotry and bullying helpful in launching discussions about whether and how these occur today. As I drove home from “West Side Story” Tuesday night, I heard Anderson Cooper interviewing Alyssa Rodemeyer, sister of 14-year old Jamey Rodemeyer, who killed himself after being harassed about his sexuality.

Apparently she was taunted about her brother’s suicide at a recent homecoming dance, proving that some things haven’t changed all that much in the last fifty years. Ignorance and fear still breed hatred. Now, more than ever, we need people who embrace the differences that make every person precious and unique.

— Lynn

Note: Learn more about preventing suicide in LGBTQ youth at www.thetrevorproject.org.

Coming up: A playwright’s journey

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