Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
“West Side Story” is the only musical on this season’s Mac-Haydn roster not to have won the Tony Award for Best Musical. It lost in 1957 to “The Music Man”, which opened the Mac-Haydn’s 1999 season. Comparing those two shows is like comparing apples and oranges. “The Music Man” is all-American, full of fun and marches. “West Side Story” is a modern take on Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1950’s Manhattan amongst two warring gangs divided along racial lines. If you want a toe-tapping feel-good show you would pick “The Music Man”, if you are looking for real theatre and real music, you would pick “West Side Story”.
The Mac-Haydn has made a wise choice with “West Side Story” in many ways. It is s show full of the energy and passions that only the very young can generate, and the Mac-Haydn has a talented company of energetic young performers. Performed in the round, in the tight confines of the Mac-Haydn, the dance and fight scenes are literally in your face. Bodies hurtle through space and colored crinolines twirl and swirl as hips swing. It is very exciting.
Where the Mac-Haydn fails is where many New England regional theatres fail when producing a show with an urban setting. There simply is not enough ethnic diversity in the available pool of actors, nor enough young actors willing to summer in Chatham who have any truly urban experience. In lieu of Puerto Ricans the Mac-Haydn has substituted a few talented African-Americans, and lots of wigs and make-up. Yes, the conflict in “West Side Story” is racial, but there is a difference between African-Americans and Americans of Puerto Rican descent – a big one – and I found the substitution unsatisfying.
That is not to say that Nicholas Ward, who plays Bernardo the leader of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks, is not a talented and compelling actor. He is simply the wrong color in a show where color is the central theme. Shannon Polly, who is about as Puerto Rican as I am, gives a great performance as Anita, but you know she owes her ethnic appearance to a wig, lots of eye make-up, and a convincing accent.
Debra Buonaccorsi as Maria is the only cast member who truly convinces you that she is of Puerto Rican descent, although her last name would point to a Mediterranean heritage. She appears wonderfully innocent and sings very well, although she cannot really sustain her highest notes.
But difficult as it is to bring a convincing group of pseudo-Puerto Ricans together on the Mac-Haydn stage, it is impossible to take the cheerful, corn-fed, preppy white folks in the cast and make them seem urban and edgy. They are just too darned clean and healthy and, well, nice to convince anyone they belong to a gang. The utterly bland Brian Whisenant as Tony has the voice for the songs, but standing there in his chinos and his Mr. Rogers-style sweater vest he looks like an alumnus Phillips Exter who got a flat tire in the wrong neighborhood on his way to enroll at Columbia. The rest of the Jets hang around Doc’s Drugstore looking way too clean and proving that white boys can’t jump.
But the real star of this show is the wonderful music by the immortal Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the thern-very-young Stephen Sondheim. “West Side Story” was revolutionary in its day for the way it blended the music, lyrics and dance into the telling of the story. This is not a show where people just suddenly start tap dancing on the street, this is a show where every word of every song advances the plot and establishes character. An idea a little too revolutionary for the Tony judges in 1957, who clung to the former style of theatre when they awarded “The Music Man” Best Musical.
“West Side Story” runs through July 25 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999