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Daily Star

West Side Story Rumbles Into Beiteddine - Famed Musical Is A Raucous Melange Of Song And Dance With Plenty Of Heartbreak

By Kleo Mitsis

July 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE DAILY STAR, BEIRUT, LEBANON. All rights reserved. 

Special to The Daily Star

When composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins began to stitch together the first rough notes, words and steps to what would become West Side Story, they could not have known they were about to unleash a cultural earthquake.

Now, nearly 50 years later, their tale of star-crossed immigrant lovers has added the Beiteddine Festival to the thousands of performance it has clocked up around the world.

This year's version, direct from La Scala in Italy, is playing until Sunday night, and it holds much in common with the 1957 Broadway original.

The singing, the dancing, the iconic balcony set - they're all there, this time enhanced (in most cases) by the same elements that made the original show - and later, the famous movie - such hits.

The story is a jazzed up, ethnically mixed version of Romeo and Juliet. The two warring sides are New York gangs, circa 1957: the "American" Jets, led by Riff (Karl Wahl), and the Sharks, immigrant Puerto Ricans commanded by the sulking, explosive Bernardo (Juan Betancur). Tony (Vittorio Grigolo) is Riff's pal and a co-founder of the Jets who falls for Maria, Bernardo's sister. But Maria is already promised in marriage to another, and when the two lovers try to outwit fate, death steps in to ruin the best-laid plans.

Some or none of this may be familiar background to audiences here, but fear not - from the moment Riff and the other Jets take to the stage, it becomes crystal clear that this show is about energy. The gang members don't walk, they strut; they don't boast, they ooze confidence - and it's visible in every breath, every movement: a snap of the fingers, a kick of the leg, a sharp turn of the head. These young Americans own the streets, and they're willing to fight to keep it.

Bernardo's Sharks are just as testosterone-heavy, with even bigger chips on their shoulders: From the get-go, the struggle is on for the title of coolest, toughest cats in town. Betancur's steely aura is equal if not stronger than Wahl's, and he has an even more menacing grace. When he stalks onto the stage the audience can't help but notice, sitting up in their seats, admiring and almost fearing, the way one looks at a wildcat, even checking (however unconsciously) to make sure it won't escape its cage.

Gang violence aside, West Side Story is ultimately a tale about two lovers, and it is here that the show weakens. Grigolo's voice is marvelous - when he sings. Snappy patter and acting are not his forte. An Italian opera singer with an impressive resume (he made his debut at age 13 at Rome's Teatro dell' Opera), his American accent is risible, and he demonstrates an unfortunate ability to murder even the simplest lines, let alone Sondheim's intricate, clever lyrics. His character's signature song, "Maria," in which Tony wanders the neighborhood streets, enraptured after meeting the girl of his dreams, lacks passion. Yes, he has singing talent, but he can't emote. The words of the tune, so amazingly simple, seem to get lost in his struggle to find what the moment is really about.

Fortunately, the best part of the show immediately follows. Solange Sandi plays Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, and when she and the other Shark girls mockingly celebrate their native Puerto Rico in "America," Tony's syrupy wanderings are reduced to a side note. Sandi has a presence, an energy and a visceral swagger that are matched only by her tremendous voice. She is thunder - sexy thunder - on legs, and the audience responds to every move.

Grigolo's counterpart, Montserrat Marti as Maria, has some charm and an equally powerful voice, but too often she resorts to playing the giggly, stereotypical ingenue. Yes, Maria is a young, sheltered immigrant who has been in America only a month, but Marti shows little nuance. Cuteness, rather than being an initial part of her character, becomes almost the entirety.

Thankfully, Marti redeems herself later. In the final scene, Maria is mature, grown and filled with anger.

"I can kill now," she moans after the tragedy in the final moments, "because now I have learned to hate." Her rage and grief, so overpowering, belie nothing of the teenager who starts the show. This transformation helps make the final scene - so powerful, anyway - that much more effective. And it leaves the audience stunned into silence.

But West Side Story is an ensemble piece, and the show continually rises above individual performances. The big production numbers - those familiar, famous songs - are a tour de force that do not disappoint. Jerome Robbins' choreography is as astonishing as it first was back in 1957, and director and choreographer Joey McKneely has done a fine job maintaining the original essence. The troupe shakes, shimmies - seethes, even - with an almost impossible energy. It is worth the price of admission just to see them move. And while there are the occasional moments when limbs fail to point in exactly the right direction or angle at the same moment, it is still - and there is no other word for it - breathtaking.

A case in point is the famous dance at the high school gym, where the two gangs show off before challenging each other to a rumble. The scene is a whirling, stomping melange of electricity. Bernardo and Riff hate each other so much that steam seems to rise off them when they are forced to be in the same part of the stage. The gangs feed off this, each trying to outdo the other in a showdown of who has the best moves. They strut, preen, menace and mambo with such raucous glee that they almost defy gravity, in some cases seeming to fly across the stage.

The Jets also get other moments to steal the show, with both "Cool," their ode to restraint in the face of adversity, and "Gee, Officer Krupke," their hilarious lampooning of the local constabulary. Again the choreography shines as the Jets mime everything from a judge's courtroom to an analyst's couch to a social worker's crowded office with barely a prop in sight. With the exception of "America," it may be the show's best all-round number.

Again, it is these songs that summon the most feeling. Much of the soundtrack has been permanently etched in Western culture, and pieces such as "Somewhere," "I Feel Pretty," and "Tonight" are sure to evoke memories. Maestro Donald Wing Chan, musical director for more performances of West Side Story than anyone else, knows the territory, even if the technical people sometimes up the volume too much. With the exceptions of a few moments where dialogue or lyrics are drowned out, the musicians - made up of the Kiev State Orchestra, as well as some from La Scala, the US and Japan - solidly support and enhance what is onstage.

Ultimately, any successful production of West Side Story rises above its cast, no matter how strong (or not) its individual parts may be. We remember not the solo, but the collective. The key elements - story, music, dance - are universal, and while it does help that so many members of this cast are talented, their memory - save perhaps for the absolutely spectacular Anita - fades with the last notes, leaving us, as always, with our own interpretations of love, and the sad, haunting echo of loss.

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