The San Francisco Ballet's comely verion of "Romeo and Juliet," which airs tonight on Channel 26 in the "Dance in America" series, may qualify as the first made-for-TV ballet, and it both benefits and suffers from the fact.
Choreographer Michael Smuin originally staged the two-hour work for the theater, but "reconceived" it for TV. The result, from the opening wingborne scan of the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding bay vista as the orchestra plays the overture to the Prokofiev score, has an airy, Californian, decidedly television look. Such devices as dissolves, close-ups and superimpositions are used to give the story a visual fluency that would be hard to duplicate in an opera house.
The program also marks the series debut for the San Francisco Ballet, and it catches the company, which has been experiencing a rejuvenation lately under co-directors Smuin and Lew Christensen, looking extremely well - youthful, vibrant, technically clean and strong. Diana Weber makes a demure, dainty Juliet; Jim Sohm is an aptly love-struck Romeo, and Attila Ficzere and John McFall are appealingly stalwart as his companions Mercutio and Benvolio.
Smuin's choreography, which for the most part looks like a diluted composite of the Cranko, MacMillan and Lavrovsky versions, is skillful if not highly original, but it does have some novel touches of its own. Among these is a clandestine affair between Lady Capulet and her nephew Tybalt that makes sound dramatic sense.
At the same time, the ballet in this televised form has the defects of its virtues. Like the fine, openwork sets by William Pitkin, the anemic-sounding orchestral performance, and the rather callow characterizations by the leads, the choreography lacks tragic weight. The drama becomes slick and prettified, and the romance of the ill-starred pair takes on a maudlin, "Love Story" veneer. In sum, the program shapes up as splendid television, handsome if superficial ballet, and rather eviscerated Shakespeare.
It doesn't help to have "The Waltons" Richard Thomas as a preposterously miscast on-camera host. On the other hand, the photo-illustrated intermission segment on the history of the San Francisco troupe makes a grand bonus.