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Monday, March 17, 2014

West Side Story*: a review with benefits

West Side Story and this writer have a long and (forgive the turn of phrase) storied co-existence.  It was the first musical he played in the pit orchestra on trombone (Hope Summer Repertory Theater, 1978, featuring Tom Stechshulte as Lt. Schank, and the first play in which he played a supporting role (Ofc. Krupke, Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, 1979). He has played the Symphonic Dances on several occasions, for both orchestra and concert band and watched the movie on TV countless times. He's now coming full circle and seeing it live from the audience for the first time, over 35 years after his first performance.

In the ten years the writer has been living in Norristown, he has heard seemingly hundreds of accounts of the Cecil B. De Mille-like proportions of Bishop Kenrick HS/Kennedy-Kenrick HS/Pope John Paul II HS's musical theater productions, leading him to wonder if West Side Story should more accurately be named Western Hemisphere. Nonetheless, he will attempt to keep an open mind as he listens, watches, and evaluates.  This review is, as I say, with benefits, because I will also pass judgement on PJPII's musical theater program.
Sunday: Saw the show; took the family out for dinner afterwards.

Monday: Well, rather than give a blow-by-blow description and my opinion thereof, I'm going to make statements and let you compare what I witnessed to what you've seen in high school and college productions of this show.

1.  I was handed a program that topped out at 186 pages--35 of which were actually about the show. The remainder consisted of advertisements and personal messages purchased by the family and friends of cast and crew.  Charles Dicken's novel A Christmas Carol wasn't that long.

2. Pre-show, they presented a slide show of "rehearsal highlights", with music from the West Side Story soundtrack.  I was really tired of "Tonight" and "Somewhere" by the time they started, which was

3. 20 minutes late.  

4. Instead of the overture, they played a short film featuring toddlers, voiced-over by teenagers and adults, in scenes from the play.

I don't have strong enough adjectives (fatuous and tacky come to mind) for my opinion of that film.  It's one thing to create that for one's own personal use, but don't make me sit through it as part of the admission price.  It insulted Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Robbins, and everyone involved in creating the original play. If you can't honor the composer and other creative forces who came together to create a masterpiece like West Side Story, then you have absolutely no business putting on that play.

5. Now, keep in mind the student's parts with lines were double-cast. I have no fundamental problem with that. Vocally, this is a demanding show. Tony, Maria, Bernardo, and Anita were triple-cast. I suppose that if you have the qualified folks to do those roles in great enough number, fine.

The problem I had was that the cast totaled--get ready--over 250 students (plus the four adult roles--Doc, Schrank, Krupke, and Glad Hand).  This made for a longer show than necessary, although I did admire the effort made in getting that many actors in and out of the auditorium and off and on the stage. 

6.  All I will say about the choreography is this:

"Cool">swing dancing on the last chorus>NO. Just say NO.
"Nightmare">Truer words were never spoken.
That being said, the kids did execute fairly well. There were just too many of them, and frankly the masses muddied any sense of nuance or artistry that the directors wished to portray, not to mention the fact that I couldn't find the singing/speaking actors on more than one occasion.

7.  20 minutes for intermission turned into 35. Pile that on to the 20 minute delay at the beginning and it makes for a long evening.

8. The best parts of the show were when only the named roles were on stage, and not when the cast of hundreds was literally spilling over the edges.

9. They seemed to take great pride in the fact that 25% of the student body was involved--250 out of 1000--but this is a show about a small neighborhood in New York City, not about all five boroughs.

10.  Orchestra: needed a piano and competent pianist. Badly. One of the co-directors, I forget who, is also reportedly the instrumental music teacher at the school.  Out of 19 musicians in the orchestra, only five were current students; the rest were alumni or ringers or both. Bernstein's score is uncompromising in its difficulty, especially for the instrumentalists in the pit--and frankly, the orchestra didn't measure up. Again, why no overture?

11. There are shows that no doubt lend themselves to this showy, glossy, glitzy treatment--State Fair, Footloose, Grease, and 42nd Street spring to mind--but not West Side Story.

I said at the beginning of this post that I would pass judgement on the PJPII musical theater program, but if you got this far, you know how I feel. 

*--Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein; book by Arthur Laurents; original choreography by Jerome Robbins, 1957.
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