The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
At its core, West Side Story is another iteration of a timeless tale about love doomed by ignorant and irrational hatred.
William Shakespeare wrote about it in the late 16th century in Romeo and Juliet, and other versions preceded it. The saddest thing is no one ever quite gets the point because you could take this story and plop it in the midst of numerous warring groups today, and it would make sense.
In the late 1950s, the trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and a writer Arthur Laurents set it among warring white and Puerto Rican gangs. The unfortunate thing about the touring production that opened at the Lexington Opera House Friday night for a three day run is it felt more like a museum piece than a vibrant story.
Quite a bit has been made about how this production, based on the 2009 Broadway revival by Laurents, updated the show to make it contemporary. That is primarily in the portrayal of the Puerto Rican characters who are played mostly by actors with Latin-American backgrounds and speak Spanish for significant portions of the show. But the gang life still feels very rooted in the mid-20th century and sanitized for musical theater. If you were concerned this was going to be some kind of Martin Scorsese take on the Sharks and the Jets, rest easy. It’s hard to sound very tough saying, “Daddy-O.”
But what really keeps this production from soaring is another timeless hazard for tales of star-crossed lovers: It’s hard to get too involved with the story if you aren’t sold on the couple.
We aren’t quite sure why Addison Reid Coe’s Tony and Maryjoanna Grisso’s Maria are drawn to each other across the dance floor, and we never really are. The passion that’s supposed to spark two-and-a-half hours of drama really never ignites, and that leaves us hanging on the songs.
Fortunately, West Side Story gives us plenty of great songs and there are some really strong performances in this production, particularly Act I centerpieces America and Cool.
Anita is one of the great show-stealing roles in American musical theater — just ask Rita Moreno — and Michelle Alves makes the most of her opportunity here, particularly with the showcase of America, swinging her skirt around, mugging and leading a great ensemble turn. Of anyone in this show, it would be no surprise if Alves made it to Broadway.
As Riff, Theo Lencicki takes a similarly strong turn in Cool, where the gang leader teaches his Jets how to act. His counterpart with the Sharks, Andres Acosta as Bernardo, is also a compelling stage presence.
But it’s Tony and Maria that must carry the show. Grisso has a beautiful voice and develops some grit before the final curtain. Coe never makes us believe Tony was once a gang leader, and with two big solos, Something’s Coming and Maria, he did not seem to know what to with himself alone on stage.
The Spanish and casting of the Puerto Rican parts certainly strengthened the production, giving the show greater credibility than some versions of West Side Story that have scrimped on cultural authenticity. And there were some thrilling ensemble moments, particularly the Dance at the Gym and the highly stylized fighting of the prologue.
But the lesson of this production is that regardless of how you frame the show, it will rise or fall on its performances and storytelling. Whether it’s R&J or West Side Story, this is not a tale that should leave us dry eyed and indifferent.
Yes, after its 2008 renovation some people might consider the Lexington Opera House’s seats so comfortable they’d like to have one at home. But that’s not what this seat sale is about.
From 2 to 5 p.m. on Aug. 26, folks interested is subscribing to the Opera House’s 7 p.m. Sunday performances of its Broadway Live series can come test drive seats and talk to ticket agents about subscribing to all or part of the 2012-13 season, which includes shows such as Dreamgirls and West Side Story. Subscribers to the Sunday evening series will be able to save as much as 10 to 20 percent on series tickets, depending on seat locations. The discount is only available for Sunday evening shows.
The Opera House added Sunday evening performances to the Broadway Live series in 2008-09, bringing the total number of performances for each show on the schedule to five. The move expanded options and accessibility to the series, which has had numerous sell outs over the years. But Sunday evening has traditionally been a harder sell for performing arts presenters. The Opera House has taken numerous steps to build audiences for the shows with features such as the Arts Appetizer chats at the Horse & Barrel in neighboring Victorian Square.
Sweetening the deal on the 26th will be ice cream sundaes for patrons who come peruse seats. Visitors will also be able to add tickets to two Variety Live presentations, Spencers Theater of Illusion and Motown in Motion, to their ticket purchase. For more information on the sale, call (859) 233-4567, Ext. 3701.
The Lexington Opera House is looking to expand its corps of volunteer ushers. Ushers work at local productions and performances by touring artists, including the Broadway and Variety Live shows. Duties include things like handing out programs and showing patrons to their seats, and the volunteers get to see the shows for their efforts. People interested in volunteering should attend a training session at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Opera House. To sign up, call Tom Habermann at (859) 233-4567, Ext.3289.
The Lexington Opera House is throwing in a little something extra for people who attend the 7 p.m. Sunday performances of Broadway Live this season. You show ticket will get you admission to the Horse & Barrel in Victorian Square, next to deSha’s for a 5:30 p.m. “Arts Appetizer” preview chat by one or several of the cast members in that night’s show. The chats and question-and-answer sessions will start at 5:45, and the events will include free appetizers and a cash bar – the bar boasting a heckuva Kentucky bourbon selection.
Sunday evening performances are the latest addition to the Broadway Live schedule, so the Opera House is concentrating on building the audience for these shows. This year boasts one of the strongest Broadway Live lineups ever with recent Broadway hits like Spring Awakening, Spamalot! and Legally Blonde – The Musical on the schedule. The season opens Sept. 10-12 with The Color Purple.
Lexington Opera House program director Luanne Franklin says she wants to get two kinds of young people into her theater’s Broadway Live series, and for the 2009-10 series, she has some things for both of them.
For kids, the series offers two classic titles: The Wizard of Oz, Nov. 6 to 8, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, May 7 to 9. For both shows, the theater is moving up its curtain times an hour, to 1 and 7 p.m. That’s particularly helpful in the evening, so kids won’t have to stay up well past their bedtimes to see the whole show.
For another type of young person, the college student or young professional, the series, which was publicly announced Thursday night, presents Avenue Q from April 9 to 11. Yes, it’s a puppet show. But it’s a puppet show with full-frontal puppet nudity and plenty of R-rated dialogue. It was the upset winner of the 2004 Tony Award for best musical, topping heavily favored Wicked.
“We have to have something young professionals want to see,” Franklin says. “It’s very important they come to the theater and realize it is not a stuffy place and we have shows that are relevant to them.”
Entries that the theater has programmed previously to appeal to younger theatergoers have included Rent and this past season’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Among the shows targeting families, Franklin says, Beauty and the Beast is significant as the first Disney production to come to the Opera House. She attributed the milestone to the Opera House’s growing reputation as a viable stop for top-tier companies, thanks to the theater being the site of technical rehearsals for touring productions of 12 Angry Men in 2007 and Mamma Mia! earlier this year.
Rounding out the schedule are Of Mice and Men, produced by Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., Sept 25 to 27; The Drowsy Chaperone, Jan. 22 to 24; and Camelot, Feb. 12 to 14.
Season tickets go on sale Friday, but individual tickets won’t be available until Aug. 21 for the fall shows and Nov. 16 for the spring shows.
There are a few changes for season subscribers:
■ The cost of a season subscription will rise $5.
■ Subscribers who add a donation of $125 or more to their tickets will have admission to Pardy’s Pub, with complimentary drinks and food before the show and during intermission at Friday and Saturday evening shows. Subscribers to the Saturday matinees and both Sunday performances will be able to make reservations at deSha’s, which normally does not take reservations, as much as two hours before those performances, and receive a complimentary appetizer or dessert with an entree before or after the show.
■ Broadway Live subscribers will have the first shot at buying tickets for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes, at Rupp Arena on Dec. 10.
■ Recognizing economic realities, the theater is offering payment plans for season tickets, with half-payments due in August and January.
Despite the recession, Franklin said that for the just-completed 2008-09 season, “we did as well as we have any season.”
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich