Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pretty and Witty and Bright...and a Storied Delight in all Directions -- Chicago Theater Review: West Side Story

Theater Review

West Side Story
a touring production presented by Broadway in Chicago
Cadillac Palace Theatre
Through August 14, 2011

West Side Story is one of the greatest works of entertainment ever created.

The confluence of genius between Arthur Laurents’ Romeo & Juliet-derived, multi-ethnic story, Leonard Bernstein’s beautifully orchestral score, Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking choreography & direction resulted in a show that was simultaneously—upon its initial Broadway bow in 1957—of its time, ahead of its time and entirely timeless.

The stage musical and its success—despite losing the Tony Award to another phenomenal show from 1957, The Music Man—spawned the Oscar-winning movie version in 1961, and West Side Story may well stand as the most famous musical of all-time, with its title well-known even among those who have no affinity for the genre.

While the show has long been a staple in the realms of high school, college, community and regional professional theater, I have no recollection of a full-fledged touring version playing a downtown Chicago theater; certainly not in the past dozen years and perhaps never in my lifetime.

So however ubiquitous West Side Story may seem, the current national tour now playing at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theater is really a rare and remarkable treat. I had seen the 2009 Broadway revival from which this touring production is derived and except for remembering that the leads in New York were especially first-rate (and beautiful), I doubt that this full Equity production is in any way inferior. And the leads in Chicago—Kyle Harris as Tony, Ali Ewoldt as Maria and Michelle Arevena as Anita—all looked and sounded pretty damn good.

So when you take a musical in which nearly every song is a masterpiece and give it a first-class staging with Broadway-caliber actors, actresses, singers & dancers, re-creations of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography and devote a 20-member orchestra to enunciating Bernstein’s glorious score, the result is a pretty special evening of entertainment.

Virtually the whole show was a highlight, with astonishing dancing during the "Prologue," the "Dance at the Gym," "America" and the "Somewhere" ballet--a truly spectacular number--and strong vocal takes by Harris on "Something's Coming," "Maria" and dueting with Ewoldt on "Tonight."

Occasionally Ewoldt's voice didn't seem to mesh perfectly with Harris'--a quite minor quibble--and her take on "I Feel Pretty," complete with some new Spanish lyrics was ebulliently fun.

And though it's always seemed a bit odd coming (not immediately) after dead bodies have been strewn about the stage, the Jets' take on "Gee, Officer Krupke" was truly sensational.

Although I won't hold this against the performers themselves, one small flaw on opening night was the under-amplification of the spoken dialogue (or maybe I just can't hear anymore after that Soundgarden show on Saturday). The volume needs to be pumped up a bit, but this was only a minor distraction and even the nosebleed seats should suit anyone just fine. The sets are adequate though not supersized, but with all the spirited, company-wide dancing, the balcony provides a nice vantage point.

West Side Story has such great source material that any production that stays fairly true to the original vision is bound to be enjoyable. In addition to seeing the show on Broadway, I've caught a summer stock rendition (at Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, IL) and an in-the-round version at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire. I remember all being extremely stellar. But as I noted above, a touring version of a Broadway revival--which had been directed by Laurents, who passed away earlier this year--is really an extreme rarity, even more so these days by virtue of featuring an Equity (actors union) cast.

Musical theater doesn't get much better than this and if you appreciate the art form, you're bound to be thankful if you go to see this production.

(How to score cheap tickets: Although I was delighted to see the Cadillac Palace packed on opening night, keep an eye on and for discount tickets. Or avail yourself of a great bargain in terms of special Broadway In Chicago subscription package. As you can see here, 6-show packages start at just $100--for seats way up in the balcony, like mine--but if you add West Side Story for a 7-show package, the cost is just $110. Other shows of note in the series are Memphis, La Cage Aux Folles and Come Fly Away, but $10 for this great a version of West Side Story is really a steal; somebody better call Officer Krupke.)  

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