Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2004

It is no wonder that I have ended up as a theatre geek when one of my earliest memories is of my father holding me in his arms and dancing me about while singing I Feel Pretty. I hasten to explain that he was singing it to and for me, as I was too small to do it for myself, and he considered me to be the pretty girl in the mirror. To this day it is a song I associate with a feeling of being surrounded by love.

I am sure that I am not alone in having a special attachment to one or more of the numbers in this excellent and ground-breaking score. It is as beautiful and exciting today as it was in 1957. The book has not worn as well, and it still takes about ten minutes to adjust to the sight of male inner city gang members expressing themselves in highly stylized dance moves, but the idea to translate Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into modern terms is executed so brilliantly that none of that really matters. West Side Story is a much beloved classic of American musical theatre and C-R Productions has mounted a strong and entertaining version of it at the Cohoes Music Hall.

Several people associated with this production have special ties to this show, which is required to bear the credit “Entire Original Production Directed and Choreographed by JEROME ROBBINS” and “Based on a conception of JEROME ROBBINS” (the caps are not mine.) This puts a great onus on any director and choreographer tackling the show today to recreate as faithfully as possible the staging of JEROME ROBBINS (okay, those are mine). Luckily, director and choreographer Nicholas Garr was chosen by Robbins in 1989 to recreate the role of Bernardo in his final Broadway show Jerome Robbins’ Broadway so he has more than an inkling of what Robbins intended, but still he is dealing with a completely different cast in a very different venue from the Winter Garden Theatre which housed the original Broadway production of West Side Story. The stage at the historic Cohoes Music Hall is not large. Once you get a set and a cast of 27 performers on it, faithfully recreating Robbins’ choreography becomes a challenge. I am not such a West Side Story aficionado that I can spot a step-by-step recreation of Robbins’ work, but whether the choreography I saw was more Garr than Robbins or vice versa, it was excellent and daring.

The other person in the show who has a special attachment to West Side Story is Tony Rivera, the Producing Director of C-R Productions, who played Chino in the 2000 production at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. Here is plays the larger role of Bernardo, Maria’s brother. While Rivera is old for the part, he plays it with a panache and confidence that make you accept him. And he is perfectly well able to keep up with the rest of the dancers, some of whom are still in high school, during Garr’s energetic and athletic dance numbers.

In the leading role of Tony, Michael Buchanan proves himself a strong singer and actor. But he is unevenly matched with Malaika Sims’ Maria. Sims, a classically trained singer with impressive credentials, is adorable and sings divinely, but she is a not a strong actress. Her Maria is too perky and enthusiastic, she does not plumb the depths of this girl’s soul. I never really bought Buchanan and Sims as a couple.

As Anita, Michelle Tibbitts is the penultimate Latin firecracker – swishing her multi-colored petticoats and stamping her black stilettos like a professional flamenco dancer – although I would guess from her name that she is not actually a Latina. She certainly gave a spirited and popular performance, but for me it was a little too much flash and not enough depth. For all the lust and love she professed for Bernardo, she seemed peeved rather than grieved at his death.

In general, I found all of the women except Sims to be way too squeaky, often to the point of being incoherent. It’s a good thing I know all the lyrics to America and I Feel Pretty or I would have felt cheated.

In contrast the men were consistently entertaining. Officer Krupke was a real highlight of Act II, and the men’s dancing was outstanding, often eliciting gasps from the audience as they leapt and tumbled about the stage.

The opening night was delayed a week due to the untimely and abrupt departure of the original musical director. Patrick Young graciously stepped in to that pivotal position and gamely leads the 12-piece orchestra, but the acoustic balances aren’t quite right, something that having more than a week to work on the show would no doubt have corrected. There are times when the orchestra needs to be more piano (as in soft) and less forte, especially when the actors are singing from way upstage, which Rivera’s set often requires them to do.

I frankly can’t imagine that Rivera has had time for such mundane activities as sleeping and eating in the last few weeks, what with running the theatre, rehearsing the show, and designing the set. As I mentioned earlier, Cohoes does not boast a large stage, and West Side Story is a big show. In order to leave as much floor space as possible for the dancing, Rivera has designed a set that creeps around the edges of the stage. There is a raised area along the back, allowing enough headroom underneath for actors to play on both levels. The sides of the stage are dressed in grimy urban brick and mortar. The set represents everywhere and nowhere in particular all at the same time. And the double levels allow for some interesting stage pictures.

Jenn Dugan has designed an uneven batch of costumes. I couldn’t quite place the era she was aiming for. The men’s costumes seemed almost modern, while the girls’ evoked the early 1960’s rather than the late 1950’s. The Sharks looked sharp and Tibbitts looked consistently glorious as Anita, but poor Maria was downright dowdy.

But despite my curmudgeonly and petty gripes, this production as a whole is solid. The audience I attended with had a great time, and the house was quite full. Frankly, as long as you sing Bernstein’s score on key, everyone will be happy, and this cast offers far more than that. Despite the dated and sanitized street talk in Arthur Laurents’ book, West Side Story is a show that still has much to say about the insanity of racial and cultural prejudice. It is never the wrong time to hear its message.

C-R Productions’ production of West Side Story runs through September 26 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and forty minutes and is suitable for children eight and up, provided you prepare them to see a musical tragedy rather than a musical comedy. Call the box office at 518-237-7999 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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