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Theater Review: "West Side Story" at Kodak Center 

Singing and dancing on the mean streets

"West Side Story" may be nearly 60 years old, but it's remarkably spry. The 1957 musical blended drama, music, and especially dance as no musical before it had quite done, and few musicals after it have completed the equation quite as elegantly. It's an ambitious choice for a joint production by RAPA and The Rochester Latino Theatre Company.

The two organizations joined forces last spring for a successful production of a more recent musical, "In the Heights," and now they're tackling this classic. This "West Side Story" is a pricey ticket by community theater standards, and though the venue is impressive, it is also problematical. But your ticket does give you the opportunity to see a stage full of talented young people demonstrate what made this show a classic in the first place.

Nobody needs to be told how good Leonard Bernstein's music and most of Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are, but Arthur Laurents's laconic book for "West Side Story" is pretty good itself. Not only is it an ingenious retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" on the mean streets of 1950's New York, but some of the dialogue about Latin immigrants and their bad treatment might have been written last week. (The lyrics include a few pieces translated into Spanish; I assume not by Sondheim.)

One drawback for directors and choreographers of "West Side Story" is Jerome Robbins's original production. Like a few other classic Broadway stagings -- including Robbins's own "Fiddler on the Roof" -- the director's imagination served the material so well that it's to imagine anyone doing it differently with much success.

So this production of "West Side Story" looks pretty much like most other productions of "West Side Story." This is not at all a bad thing if you fill the template well, and this production is bursting with young talent.

The leading roles of Tony (Kyle Critelli) and Maria (Allison Macri) are ideally cast and sweet-voiced; Macri makes Maria a pleasantly spunky character from her first scene. This pair's scenes and songs together are charming and romantic, and highlights of the show.

The show calls for a huge cast. Laurents (and I suppose Robbins) differentiated each gang member with a name and a characterization, and this cast had me looking all over the stage to catch individual reactions and bits of business. The showiest supporting role is probably that of Maria's cousin Anita -- who gets to sing "America" and "A Boy like That" -- and Yvana Melendez is a real spitfire in this part. Alec Powell portrays Riff gently but effectively, and the adolescent attraction he has for Tony is sensitively played. Michael Cantatore has already won an RBTL Stars of Tomorrow Award in the past for playing Action, and he's exactly the bundle of angry nervous energy the part calls for. Even the four non-singing adult roles are cast for strength (Billy DeMetsenaere makes a very credible and emotional Doc).

The singing, directed by Tamar Greene, is uniformly excellent, but the orchestra, directed by Jeff Wilson, was extremely uneven on opening night, sometimes spot on but often noticeably sour-toned and tentative.

"West Side Story" is a big show, but the enormous Kodak Center for Performing Arts almost dwarfs it. This is a huge venue, and it's good to have it back in circulation, but this was a bit like watching a show at Radio City Music Hall. The young voices need miking, and the sound system didn't do them many favors on opening night: it sometimes dropped out completely or became irritatingly staticky.

Artistic director Eric Vaughn Johnson and choreographers Stefanie Cheshire and Jayme Bermudez have done a good job of filling an enormous stage with meaningful movement. The backdrops and set pieces fill the stage, but it is telling that the two most effective scenes may be the dance at the gym and the "Somewhere" ballet scene, both which appear on a virtually bare stage. Solo or duet numbers, like "Something's Coming" or "One Hand, One Heart," can get a bit lost on the huge stage, no matter how well they are performed.

This "West Side Story" moves swiftly, as it must, and the cast always delivers. And unlike the original cast or the movie, they don't look like a bunch of ballet dancers in sneakers, but are a realistic-looking bunch of young people of all sizes, shapes, and ethnicities.

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