So it's surprising that the musical West Side Story created such a stir when it opened on Broadway 50 years ago, complete with leaping chorus boys armed with sharpened shivs and killer demi-pliés. The Sharks and the Jets are facing off again at the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron in a production that, while well short of perfect, has enough telling moments to stop your four-cheese lasagna from backing up.
Over the past few decades, it's been pretty hard to avoid this icon of American musicals. If you didn't star in it during high school, you probably saw the movie version, featuring the worst casting of two principals in the history of musical cinema: Natalie "I Can't Sing a Note" Wood as Maria and Richard "I Am a Human Black Hole of Negative Energy" Beymer.
The Carousel version does better on that score, with Stephanie Iannarino applying her operatic pipes to Maria's singing chores while crafting a spirited, spontaneous character. Her star-crossed lover Tony is played by a very preppy-looking Nathan Scherich, a young man who sings a lot better than he acts; he barely manages to keep the romance afloat until its famous Shakespearean conclusion.
As the Romeo and Juliet of this doomed soul match, battling for love while their relatives and buddies fight over a squalid patch of New York City turf, Iannarino and Scherich never create the musky chemistry that is necessary. During the famous balcony scene when they croon "Tonight," he spends too much time looking down at his hands -- evidently attempting to conjure interior subtext -- and not enough feeding off the object of his affections. Iannarino works her magnetism for all its worth, but she's trying to lure a block of wood.
Of course, beyond the central love connection, West Side Story is all about the flow of the timeless music, composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The urgently urban score, still sounding as fresh as it did in Eisenhower's second term, requires a cast that can dance almost nonstop in between the songs and brief dialogue scenes. And here the Carousel players excel, delivering sharply defined dance numbers, whether they're on stage or dashing through the aisles and standing on serving platforms amid the audience.
Among the prominent gang members, head Shark Bernardo is a glowering presence, even though David Villella, who plays him, looks about 35. Unfortunately, his counterpart Riff is given a saggy rendition by Matthew Steffens. Hampered by a lateral lisp and a vague character focus, Riff comes off flatter than roadkill on the Triborough Bridge. One wishes he had some of the snap of Chris Cobb Olsen, who brings immediate intensity to the volatile role of Action.
On the distaff side of this gender-bifurcated work, Julie Kotarides is slim and fiery as Anita, Maria's best friend and sister of Bernardo. She leads the Puerto Rican girls in a rousing, petticoat-flouncing version of "America" and later is lacerating when she sings "A Boy Like That" with Maria, the song ending in a tender duet. And Jonelle Margallo, playing the girl who comes out of nowhere, handles perhaps the best song, "Somewhere," with professional panache.
The mood of the play is enhanced substantially by scenic designer Robert A. Kovach's backdrop, featuring a jagged skyline graphic that looks like a particularly troubling EKG. And even though he gives short shrift to some scenes -- the high-school dance is delineated by a few limp streamers dropped from above -- the framing set composed of lit tenement windows and clothes hanging on lines does a nice job of establishing the back-alley environment.
One directorial misstep in this version is the decision by Marc Robin to end the first act with the song "Tonight" and begin the second act with the rumble. This throws the delicate balance of tragedy, love, and humor out of whack, since the lilting and sweetly comical "I Feel Pretty" is forced to immediately follow the horrific events under the bridge, without the balm of an intermission.
Robin also serves as the choreographer (as did director Jerome Robbins in the original), and he keeps the pace electric while wisely allowing certain scenes the room they need to play out. This is especially true at the end, when Robin gives the tragic denouement all the space and silence it demands to register the profound loss settling on everyone.
That concluding scene, by itself, almost makes up for other lapses in the production, making this Story a flawed but still worthy marker of a wonderful show's golden anniversary.