With music from Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim and a Shakespearian love story filled with melodrama, West Side Story has remained one of Broadway's most loved musicals. Add in some of the smoothest jazz moves ever performed on the Great White Way, coming from the famed choreographer Jerome Robbins, and you've got all the ingredients for an absolutely thrilling night of theater. And the folks at Theatre Under The Stars almost pull it off with their new production now running at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Alan Johnson has re-created Robbins' direction and choreography to make what should be a very cool night of musical theater. But something in this production is just a little bit off.
To begin with, the Jets and Sharks, the two New York street gangs that make this story so sexy, don't seem all that dangerous in this production. The Jets, led by Riff (Leo Ash Evens), look more like math geeks from The Woodlands than they do ruffians from New York's mean streets. And the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Wilson Mendieta), look most of all like, well, a stage full of slim-hipped dancers. There's nothing in the least bit intimidating about this group of boys. They are gorgeous dancers. And Evens can belt out a song with tons of Broadway brass, but the only character on this stage that seems even vaguely predatory is Graziella, Riff's girlfriend, played by a deliciously naughty Carolyn Doherty.
Stephanie Iannarino does make for a refreshingly headstrong Maria. Tall and sweetly gawky (except when she dances, which she does so beautifully), Iannarino turns what is often a dull though lovely voiced soprano role into a hotheaded woman to be reckoned with. Also surprising is Max von Essen's Tony, the beautiful tenor who sings his praises to his girl in the easy-to-learn lyrics "Maria, Maria, Maria," etc. These are easy-to-like paramours, and it would have been nice to see their love scenes made steamy with some new and edgy direction. After all, these are kids who are deep in dangerous love and have absolutely nothing to lose.
Instead, this production offers a scrubbed-clean version of love and war in the gang territory they come from. But even in the '50s these kids wouldn't have scared a nun.
Andy's most shocking problem is the fact that he shits his pants whenever he gets upset. But embarrassing as that might be, dirty britches are hardly the kid's biggest heartache. In fact, Noah Haidle's dark script A Long History of Neglect offers up such a grim and lengthy list of troubles that his central character must live with, that it comes as no real surprise when they crescendo into a haunting end, especially as played out in the disturbing production from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company.
Left to his own devices by a mother who must work three jobs just to keep Hamburger Helper on the table, Andy (played to sad-sack perfection by Eric Doss in a bowl cut hairdo and polyester pants) is brutally bullied by neighbor boys, chastised by an idiot teacher and ignored by his slutty sister. Terrorized by his anxieties, Andy ends up spending every chance he gets hiding out in his closet, with the door locked, pretending he's a robot or from another time.
Painfully pathetic as all this is, the production is also full of black humor. Director Alan Hall has infused the story with a bleak irony that comes out most often in Jennifer Decker's brutally honest performance as Justine, Andy's angry and self-involved mother. She stands alone, in her high heels, talking to the audience about her own difficulties. She works in a Laundromat, an eyelash factory and a fast-food restaurant. She constantly worries about getting fired. She wears a hat with a chicken on it. Armed with nothing more than the withered rage of a woman who's been burned too many times, she offers to have sex with a man in her car because she doesn't have time for romance. And while her son is often on her mind, she can do absolutely nothing about it because she has no time to give him what he needs most -- loving attention.
One of the quirkiest inclusions in this story comes in the character of Emily Dickenson (Sara Gaston), who shows up in Andy's closet after school one day. Andy wants to ask the great poet large questions about the nature of existence, but even in his imagination, the boy can't get the attention he so craves. Emily is too interested in ice cream and electric lights to consider Andy's deep questions. Instead of helping him, she spends her time turning on and off the closet light in delighted amazement at modern conveniences. She listens to rap music on a pair of head phones, adoring the new "poetry."
Meanwhile, Andy is sinking into the depths of his own neurosis and nobody notices, not even the poet he conjures up out of his own subconscious. All this neglect can only lead him down a very dark road -- one that the story follows to its inevitable if disturbingly sad end.
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