West Side Story -- what many consider to be the most impressive collaboration in the history of musical theater -- was conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. A retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in an immigrant New York neighborhood circa 1957, the musical lives and dies by its dancing. In West Side Story, Robbins put forth the then-revolutionary idea that dance should advance the plot, not exist as isolated divertissement. And the Galveston Island stage seems perfectly proportioned to give the musical's dance its due: the area is huge, 150 by 100 feet. With the set's brick tenements, alleyways and all-important fire escape-cum-balcony set way back, choreographer/director James A. Stoker has what he must have -- room, lots of room. Everything has been rightly cleared away for dance numbers.
But if the space is fine, what fills it isn't. Stoker stumbles early, and never fully recovers. He never creates the necessary tension between the rival gangs, the Jets (the house of Montague) and the Sharks (Capulet). There's not a moment in the two-and-a-half-hour show when true danger, threat or nervousness is in the air. There's plenty of finger-snapping, but no real attitude. Where are the defiant poses? The physical violation? The tone-setting anthem "Jet Song" stresses easy gymnastics, but fails to establish the necessary sense of arrogant, reckless confidence, the sort of confidence that, turned the wrong way, can get someone killed.
A similar problem occurs in "The Dance at the Gym." This vital sequence needs to suggest that a seemingly routine high school hop is testing the limits of illicit passion, so that when Tony (Romeo) and Maria (Juliet) meet, the ramifications are earthshaking. But instead of reflecting barely contained violence and sexual tension, the dance is too hyper. It's all frenetic synchronicity and self-satisfied parading. While Stoker surely knows how much is on the line, the deployment of his vision doesn't reach deep enough.
When Jet leader Riff coaxes his agitated mates to be "Cool," Stoker has them slide their shoulders as if shrugging off worry and turn themselves around in a literal way that also works quite well metaphorically. They coast, make compact, self-contained leaps and even play a deliberate air guitar; by the end of the song they're lurching forward as a team, confident, aligned, menacing. So what's the problem? You can tell the dancers from the dance. In this and every other moment demanding insolence, Stoker's performers are unable to capture the needed youthful, oppressive mood.
But for all the sense of "one step forward, two steps back," there's still some nifty dancing, particularly in the more playful numbers. In the spunky sarcasm that is "America," the Sharks serve as devil's advocates to their women as they mock-debate the merits of the American dream. The Catch-22 at the heart of the immigrant song is embodied particularly well when the "confused" hoofers don't know whether to flamenco or sashay, cowpoke-style. "Gee, Officer Krupke!" is even better. Unleashing their full arsenal of hip abandon, the Jets take on the trappings of a therapy session, a social worker's office and a courtroom, in exaggerated confirmation that they're depraved on account of the fact that they're deprived. Here, both dance and dancers are inspired.
The most inspired principal cast member is Robert Cunningham as Tony. So fine is his feeling and so lilting is his tenor that you don't really care that when it comes to dialogue he's either too moony in the beginning (he is, after all, in a gang) or not vengeful enough later on (he is, after all, in a gang).
What the boyishly handsome Cunningham does, though, is glow. So even though Julie Ann Emery as Maria has -- at least on the night I attended -- a pitch-poor voice that becomes even shakier when it reaches upper registers, their duets are still affecting. While she's just not up to the purity of "One Hand, One Heart," Cunningham's part of their would-be wedding song is a vow of such luminous devotion that you can't help but wish her well, too. Emery does better with dialogue, coming across as a burgeoning young woman with romantic yearnings, but she never quite finds Maria's innocent, transcendent loveliness. It's more because of how much we like Cunningham than how much we believe Emery that we hope love can conquer all.
But it's not all Emery's fault. How can she "feel pretty" when musical director/conductor Mark Janas plods along, showing no awareness of how light and tripping that gossamer ditty should be? Throughout the score Janas and his musicians miss not only an occasional note, but Bernstein's edgy lushness altogether. Janas shows more sensitivity playing overture-type segues between scenes -- but the problem here is that the blackouts take too long. Given the structure of the script and the layout of Galveston Island's production, I wonder if blackouts are even necessary in the first place.
One thing that is necessary in West Side Story is an adept supporting cast, since many supporting roles carry almost the weight of leads. And like every other facet of Galveston Island's production, these players are a mixed bag. Yvonne Campbell shines as Maria's best friend, the spitfire Anita; Robert Anthony has less success as Anita's boyfriend/ Maria's brother, Bernardo. As Tony's friend and Jet leader Riff, Mark Arvin, a former principal dancer with the Houston Ballet, makes his background clear. His dancing is fine; his acting, less so.
That, in a nutshell, is what Galveston Island's production is all about. For every success, there's a failure. And when the venue for young toughs playing for keeps at love and war is an open-air amphitheater with an unencumbered view of the starry sky, it's debatable if wavering competence suffices.
West Side Story plays through September 2 at Galveston Island Outdoor Musicals Amphitheatre, 13 Mile Road, Galveston, (800) 547-4697; 737-3440 in Galveston.