Spotlight: West Side Story
West Side Story has burned its way into American mythology, which isn't to say that it has kept its power to shock or jar. Still, in good hands, the 1957 retelling of Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of New York racial strife and juvie delinquency retains significant charm, and this Chanhassen production comes armed with sharp performances and a crisp grasp of the show's musical dynamics. In the early going we have Tony (Dieter Bierbrauer), once a crucial member of the Jets, who has grown weary of gangbanging and settled into late-adolescent longing. The matter of what he might be missing is unequivocally settled when he espies Maria (Jodi Carmeli), the only snag being her Puerto Rican ethnicity and the matter of her brother being the head of the rival Sharks. The story sticks to a modern view of tragedy--the problem doesn't come from anything inherent in Tony, but instead from the nasty injustices of the world. Carmeli and Bierbrauer have a nice sweetness between them, and while neither hits a grand slam in terms of dramatic performance, their vocal skills and openness sell the romance. The nine-piece orchestra, led by Thomas Mustacio, captures both the jagged angularity and the lush reveries of Leonard Bernstein's score, and Tamara Kangas's choreography is often intricate and consistently lively. The staging isn't a museum piece; the original Jerome Robbins production is definitely a starting point, but gratuitous visual cues to the '50s are absent, and an effort is made to breathe freshness into a perhaps overfamiliar story. Standout performances include Julianne Mundale's knowing take on Anita, and Deane Tasler's brooding Bernardo. Not the most challenging couple of hours you could spend in the theater, but it's hard not to admire the production's craft and dogged pursuit of what the work is really about: hope for the hopeless, the reasonableness of misbehavior in the face of injustice, and the tin ear of the world to the transcendence of love. Oh, and the knife fighting is pretty good, too.
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