At 50, 'West Side Story' Is Still Ready to Rumble

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 30, 2007

"West Side Story" rumbled into Wolf Trap on Tuesday night, and the best thing about it is -- well, that it's "West Side Story," still brawny and audacious after a half century.

With the possible exception of Natascia Diaz's Anita, there are no standout performances in this touring production from Atlanta's Theater of the Stars. And there's nothing new: Director Alan Johnson re-creates the original Jerome Robbins direction and choreography, and uses the same set and lighting designers who worked on the reproduction he brought to Wolf Trap five years ago.

So you can probably fetch the pictures from your mental hard drive: Tony hopefully crooning "Maria"; Anita sashaying through the sardonic "America"; Jets and Sharks snapping their fingers and slinking around, flipping gracefully over a chain-link fence before erupting in a balletic brawl.

The production offers plenty to quibble with, from a wobbly balcony and seemingly random shifts of light to an "American Idol"-style Tony (Nathan Scherich has great pipes, but his facility is almost too tidy). But keep cool, boy: Leonard Bernstein's music, played by an orchestra of roughly 20, jabs and soars, and the tense choreography still captures the joy and angst of youthful abandon. If the show doesn't hook you during the swaggering opening ballet, it will by the hormone-fueled "Dance at the Gym." Mambo!

And Diaz is delightful, the one performer who seems to fully own her role. She perhaps overdoes Anita's sarcastic kittenish comedy, but her dancing in "America" is easy and commanding. So is her acting and her vocal duet with Sarah Darling's winsome Maria ("A Boy Like That/I Have Love") as the "Romeo and Juliet" plot takes its turn for the worse.

Maybe Leo Ash Evens could bring a bit more edge to Riff, leader of the Jets, and maybe the dramatic pacing slackens now and then. But Michael Balderrama smolders well as Bernardo, head of the Sharks (also Maria's brother and Anita's beau), Joey Calveri is a hair-trigger punk as Action, and the ensemble generally sings and moves well enough that the story has no trouble taking hold.

Among the numbers that truly take off is "Gee, Officer Krupke," with its fabulously derisive Stephen Sondheim lyrics that these Jets joyfully bellow as the horn section guffaws. Even at such moments, you never lose sight that this isn't a great production, yet the audience's grateful reception Tuesday felt right.

Seeing this landmark show staged well and faithfully will do, at least until an appropriately smashing version comes along.

West Side Story, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Robbins's original direction and choreography reproduced by Alan Johnson. Musical director, Janice Aubrey; costumes, Kansas City Costumes Co.; lighting design, Ken Billington; sound design, Peter Fitzgerald & Erich Bechtel. About two hours and 45 minutes. Through Sunday at Wolf Trap, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. Call 877-965-3872 or visit http://www.wolftrap.org.

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