Urban Contemporary

At a time when gang-related drive-by killings plague the nation's major cities, a 40-year-old musical in which two rival packs sit down to a war council at the local soda shop and order "Cokes all around" should seem hopelessly dated. Yet when a police detective shows up spewing racial slurs and threatening to use his badge to carry out an ethnic cleansing of the neighborhood, it's clear that not much has really changed since the 1957 debut of West Side Story. The vibrant revival now on-stage at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables suggests that composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's classic may prove as enduring as Romeo and Juliet, upon which it is based.

Set in a poor Manhattan neighborhood struggling to absorb a recent influx of immigrants, West Side Story opens with a frenetically danced turf war between the homegrown Jets and the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. In fact, these kids use their feet as much as their fists, compensating for their youthful inarticulateness by pouring their restlessness into emotion-drenched dances. Choreographer Barbara LeGette nicely adapts the movements Jerome Robbins created for the Broadway original (which won him a special Oscar when the show made the transition to the screen in 1961), adroitly filling the Playhouse's vast stage with finger-snapping, jean-clad teenage rebels. Working with a cast that lacks the size and training of the one available to Robbins, LeGette still captures the excitement of his dances, which are as much a part of West Side Story as is the show's familiar score.

Leading the Jets in an ode to their gang ("Jet Song") or warning them to keep "Cool," top dog Riff (Terrell Hardcastle) and his followers execute intricate patterns -- they come off like fighter planes at an air show. Later, just down the block, head Shark Bernardo (Julio Agustin) and his girlfriend Anita (Connie SaLoutos) stage a rousing, skirt-swirling, heel-stomping showdown while cataloguing the virtues of living in "America." It's no surprise, then, that when the two gangs meet at a dance at a neighborhood gym, the floor erupts into a take-no-prisoners war zone that threatens to blow the roof off the newly renovated theater.

The bedlam melts away when ex-Jet Tony (Timothy C. Johnson) spies Bernardo's little sister Maria (Elissa Anne Boone), who has arrived from Puerto Rico to marry her brother's best pal Chino (Peter Musa-Ris). Unlike their friends, Tony and Maria have no trouble finding words for their love, and their unforgettable ballads "Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart," and "Somewhere" give West Side Story its heart; Johnson and Boone manage to impart a certain freshness to the well-known songs. Meanwhile Agustin and SaLoutos's colorful, passionate performances threaten to make Bernardo and Anita the musical's most memorable couple. This talented quartet heads a cast of 28 in the Playhouse's most ambitious staging to date. Director David Arisco keeps the mix of professionals and novice performers focused in a seamless production.

With a book (by Arthur Laurents) so slender that it almost qualifies as one of Bernstein's modern operas or a precursor to Sondheim's sung-through musicals, West Side Story never slows down long enough for the characters to reflect upon their actions, which presents Arisco with his biggest challenge: the staging of a musical tragedy. As in Romeo and Juliet, the characters here rush headlong into their fates, which have been predetermined by their lives in the barrio as surely as if they had been born Capulets and Montagues. Yet West Side Story zooms from a deadly rumble to the fatal shooting that ends Tony and Maria's romance, never pausing to give the audience a chance to get to know or care about the characters.

In Craig Zadan's book Sondheim & Co., Stephen Sondheim comments that "West Side Story is about the theater. It's more about techniques, not about people, and Arthur recognized that problem right away, and instead of writing people he wrote one-dimensional characters for a melodrama, which is what it is." In the same book, a less critical Bernstein adds, "I was convinced [West Side Story] would lead to some form of American opera. I think the merit of the show was the total integration of everybody's talents, and it consequently had more fluidity than any show ever."

This revival's own smooth pacing owes a lot to designer Dorset Noble, whose ingenious three-story set of iron fire escapes and revolving buildings precludes lengthy set changes. Similarly, Mary Lynne Izzo's nifty period costumes blend eye-popping dance dresses with teenage working-class apparel, enhancing the production's overall youthful vigor.

Disappointingly, their expert work is not supported by Stuart Reiter's hackneyed lighting design. For example, he places Tony and Maria in sweetheart-pink spotlights while projections of impressionistic fireworks appear over the skyline as the duo sings that their love is "shooting sparks into space." Even worse is Tom Dillickrath's musical direction of the six-man pit orchestra, which turns Bernstein's lush score into a karaoke nightmare of syncopated drums and synthesized sounds.

Still, Actors' Playhouse offers up a spirited 40th anniversary staging of a timeless musical that at least one of its creators never thought would endure. Sondheim himself has carped, "What lasts in the theater is character, and there are no characters. The show isn't very good." Which explains why Sondheim made his name in the theater district rather than on Wall Street.

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