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Theatre Review: Some Things Work, Some Things Don't in Carnegie's "West Side Story"

There are things that work and things that don’t in The Carnegie’s current revival of West Side StoryThey even out somewhere near the middle.
Working in its favor – just about everyone who is a fan of stage musicals has West Side Story imprinted on their brain. For any misstep, it’s easy just to call up what should be. 
On the outside chance there’s anybody out there who doesn’t know, West Side Story is a musical Romeo and Juliet updated to the mean streets of Manhattan in the Fifties with two street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, standing in for the Capulets and Montagues – but of course you know that.
There’s a lot to admire in the Carnegie production. Director Brian Robertson sets the scene from the opening moment on Wes Calkin’s well-devised set that screams urban slum. The stage slowly fills with disenfranchised teens with too much time on their hands, too much testosterone, too many grudges -- and not many ways to vent. They’re members of warring gangs, the local punks versus immigrant Puerto Ricans. Their fight for meager turf is pumped up by brutal prejudice.
West Side Story is very much driven by dance, because these guys don’t just stand around, they explode in movement. Choreographer Jay Goodlett does an impressive job of filling the Carnegie’s small stage without over-filling it and telling the story with a reduced company.
The iconic, balletic athleticism of the opening “Jets Song” is more than most of the guys can smoothly pull off, but the energy is there. Bravo to Kate Mueller, Tina deAlderete, Allison Evans and Kathryn Miller who double as the girlfriends of both gangs with lots of costume changes.
The show is strong musically, led by William White, but while it’s played and sung admirably, there isn’t a spark of attraction between Marcus Shields as Tony and Abigail Paschke as Maria. (Paschke was also Maria in last year’s “The Sound of Music” at the Carnegie.) She communicates a young girl eager for romance. Shields is a better singer than actor – he makes it look like work.
It’s Layan Elwazani, an acting major at Wright State, who pops. There’s nice work, too, from the Jets – Brian Bailey as Riff, whose body language alone tells us he’s the leader, with Tyler Kuhlman, Keaton Eckhoff, Drew Simendinger, and Brandon Huber. Kate Mock Elliott has terrific energy as Jets’ hanger-on, Anybodys.
In the past, the January musical at The Carnegie has been a “concert staging.” West Side Story is a real staging, and that means it must be held to a different standard. For Carnegie regulars, it doesn’t light the audience on fire the way Chicago did a couple of seasons back.
Some of it is the obvious range of abilities of the cast, some of it is that some actors are clearly too old for their teenager roles, some of it is that the confines of the stage don’t allow for electrifying dance, despite Goodlett’s best efforts. Some of it is an occasional directorial choice that doesn’t work well for the production.
Robertson turns a disadvantage – the size of the Carnegie stage – to his advantage, smartly moving some action into the auditorium. But he also moves Maria off the balcony (a.k.a. fire escape) in the big love scene. 
Say what? How does she get past her father? And if she can get up and down in a matter of seconds with no repercussions, what have all her protestations been about?
Robertson does stand-out fight direction and keeps West Side Story moving, making smart trims. But there’s also a moment when a cop does a sort of choke hold on a gang member. If the moment was blocked before the Eric Garner incident, Robertson would have been wise to reconsider – the moment pulls us right out of drama into reality. 
He also makes a jarring change to the show’s closing moments, clearly thinking it’s a better fit for the time we live in. Maybe it would work if it could be paced differently – but even if it had been, folks who love musicals are a hopeful, not a hopeless breed. 
West Side Story, through Jan. 18. The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Additional performances 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15 and 2 p.m. Jan. 17. Tickets $30. and 859-957-1940.
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
Photo by Mikki Schaffner (provided)
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