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West Side Story

Jonathan Retartha and Ryan Retartha | Friday, February 6, 2004

Rarely in pop culture is a remake of a classic work able to become a classic of its own. One of the only exceptions is “West Side Story,” which brings its special twist of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to Washington Hall this week. Performed by the Pasquerilla East Musical Company, the show has created a theater buzz unseen on campus for a very long time. The weekend shows sold out so quickly that they opened up Wednesday’s final dress rehearsal for ticket sales. “West Side Story” is a fairly strict adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works. The setting is moved from Verona to Manhattan in the 1950s, and the rival street gangs the Jets and the Sharks replace the feuding families of Montague and Capulet. The lovers of this tale are Maria, sister of the Shark leader, Bernardo and Tony, best friend of Riff, the leader of the Jets. The two fall in love at a dance, which causes a great stir among the gang leaders. Riff does not want to see her sister get involved with one of their enemies, just as Bernardo does not want to see his best friend do the same. To complicate things, Maria has already had her marriage arranged for her, to a fellow Shark named Chino. What follows is a tale of love struggling to survive in a world full of murder and hatred. The story even goes a step further than Shakespeare in adding the extra tension of the ethnic struggles between Puerto Ricans and Americans in 1950s New York. The concept of “West Side Story” came from Jerome Robbins and a novel written by Arthur Laments. Leonard Bernstein, the creator of many famous symphonies, ballets and musicals, composed the score. Lyricist Stephen Sondheim has also contributed to such famous musicals as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Candide,” “Gypsy” and “Into the Woods,” which was performed last year by The Pasquerilla East Musical Company. His work also includes contributions to motion pictures such as “Dick Tracy” and “The Birdcage.”Robbins proposed the idea to Bernstein in 1949. Bernstein first wanted to set it against the backdrop of Easter and Passover with the main conflict arising between Jewish and Christian families. After meeting with Laments in 1955, the concept was changed to the one seen now in theaters. The musical opened Sept. 26, 1957 on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater, later home to the musical, “Cats.” It played there for 732 performances and then went on the road for ten weeks and returned to Broadway for 249 more performances. A 1980 revival on Broadway played for 341 performances.Unlike many musicals, the film version of “West Side Story” is just as famous as its stage version. The film opened in October 1961 and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. It went on to win 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Cinematography. The film also won three Golden Globes, including Best Picture, and won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack.The soundtrack itself is one of the best parts of the show. The musical numbers of “West Side Story” are some of the most widely recognized pieces of musical theater in history. “Jet Song,” “Maria,” and “America” and “I Feel Pretty” are staples of the Broadway canon. The widely recognizable songs in addition to the large cast make the musical a popular choice for high school and college theater companies.As for Notre Dame’s own The Pasquerilla East Musical Company, the performances of the actors reveal the amount of hard work and effort that went into the production. Besides the lines and blocking of standard dramatic plays, the actors in “West Side Story” also had to rehearse the vocal numbers and learn the choreography to the several dance numbers that are interwoven into the storyline. Director Ray Areaux also acted as choreographer, with Lauren Prieto as music director and Beth Planalp as stage manager.Lawrence Santiago plays Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks who is looking for a turf of his own for his Puerto Rican brethren. Santiago plays the role with a headstrong aggressiveness needed to convey his role of authority in the organization. Santiago also displays the confident qualities of a womanizer, while at the same time being protective and caring of his sister Maria.Natalie Martinez, in the role of Maria, has a simply beautiful voice that commands the stage whenever she is present. The role of Maria is multifaceted, and Martinez makes the perfect transition from being a wide-eyed girl with dreams of a better future to assuming the role of the love stricken protagonist. Like Maria, the character of Tony, played by Jack Calcutt, is torn about his present life at the onset of the musical. Tony is reluctant to rejoin the Jets, but Calcutt’s motivation stems more from having an unseen knowledge of what the gang life is all about, rather than from fear of the unknown. Calcutt beautifully balances that initial mature reluctance with his later infatuation with Maria.KC Kenney plays Riff, the leader of the Jets who has finally gained respect for his gang by ousting another rival city gang. Kenney plays Riff with a zeal that reflects his war-hawkish qualities and his slight overconfidence. Kenney was also one of the producers of the show. Jenny Radelet plays Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita. She gives a powerful vocal and acting performance. She is Maria’s only real confidant and is as torn as her friend over her connection with the Tony and the Jets.Unlike the movie version, which obviously needed a realistic setting in order to make the story believable on screen, The Pasquerilla East Musical Company chose to reflect the original stage setting of the play and use a minimal amount of set design. The orchestra does not perform from a pit, but rather behind the set of scaffolding in front of a plain white canvas with colored lights on it. The only props are a few tables and chairs and a few moveable boxes. The absence of large decadent sets and props leaves as much room as possible open on stage for the elaborate dance numbers.The costumes are timeless, but easily convey the identities of the rival gangs. The men are in jeans and T-shirts, while the women are primarily in dresses. The Sharks’ costumes are lively and vibrant in order to reflect Puerto Rican influences. The men wear bright reds, oranges and yellows with black jeans and black sneakers and occasionally simple suits and ties. The women wear colorful Latin dresses with reds and whites and ribbons and lace. The Jets’ costumes are more muted and metropolitan, with blues, greens, and purples. The men wear blue jeans and white sneakers, along with sport coats and khakis. The women are always in pastel dresses that reflect the 1950s style. The contrast between the costumes, and between the gangs, is stark when the cast members are together onstage. It is fitting that the honor of having so many sold out shows goes to The Pasquerilla East Musical Company, the organization that was responsible for bringing musical theater back to Notre Dame. Starting in 1987, the University experienced a decade long drought of musical theater productions. Neither the Department of Music nor the the Department of Film, Television and Theater would sponsor such activities. Then, in the spring of 1997, Kelly McGann, a resident of Pasquerilla East, worked with Student Activities to develop a campus group dedicated to musical theater, under a mission statement dedicated to “provide an outlet for musical and artistic expression and enjoyment, for Pasquerilla East and the University of Notre Dame community.” The Pasquerilla East Musical Company first performed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a musical take on the biblical story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, in the fall of 1997. The production was a rousing success, and since then the group has gone on to stage productions of other several other famous musicals. In 1999 The Pasquerilla East Musical Company performed “Godspell,” the story of Christ set in the psychedelic 60s, following it the next year with “Grease,” one of the most staged musicals in history. “Guys and Dolls,” performed in 2001 told the gangster-era story of dating, marriage, and gambling. The following year staged “Damn Yankees,” set in the golden age of baseball and telling the story of a baseball team with plenty of heart.This year, The Pasquerilla East Musical Company has upheld their excellent tradition with yet another strong performance of a classic musical. The singing, acting and dancing all provide an exciting experience of authentic Broadway theater, 800 miles from the great white way. “West Side Story” is a tale about hatred, prejudice and vengeance, but above all these, it is a story about love overcoming all bonds. Shakespeare wrote his theater for the masses of his time, as stuffy as it may seem to many readers today. The P.E. Musical Company’s production succeeds in taking that classic love story and bringing it to a contemporary audience with an excitement and enthusiasm that is hard to find in any other medium but musical theater.