SAN DIEGO — College theater is always a gamble--but a good one.
When it fails, it is usually because the right actor for a particular part wasn't available on campus. When it succeeds, university theater can be absolutely terrific, the best ticket buy in town.
Whichever way it goes, the whole endeavor is always miles ahead of amateur theater because everyone is striving to reach the peak of their skills before they graduate.
The International Company of United States International University's production of "West Side Story," at The Theatre in Old Town, falls right in the middle of this proposition.
The Jerome Robbins-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical (with book by Arthur Laurents) is the perfect vehicle for showing off the youthful company's strengths. It is marred only by a small casting problem--the vocally and dramatically difficult role of Tony.
Professional actor Stephen Breithaupt was brought in from Los Angeles by director Andrew Barnical to fill the gap. It was an understandable move, with unfortunate results.
After his first number, Breithaupt's voice warms up and he is capable of hitting most of the notes in Bernstein's demanding score, but the effort must sap all of the romantic energy, which is not apparent in this Tony's attitude toward his beloved Maria.
No matter. The show opens with its strong point in glorious display: 14 powerful young male dancers in an elaborately choreographed sequence of street encounters between the Anglo and Puerto Rican street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.
Jerome Robbins gets historical credit for the ground-breaking choreography, but the local staging sparkles under the choreographic guidance of Marge and Jack Tygett, whose contributions would be hard to separate in the whir of flashing leaps, flips and other impressive pyrotechnics.
With Tony's weakest number, "Something's Coming," safely out of the way, the dancing continues with a female twist at the high school gymnasium. Here, the racial boundaries get a little confusing. This Puerto Rican gang is largely black, and Judy Ryerson's costumes for the Puerto Rican and Anglo women are too close in color and style to make the visual division as striking as it might have been.
At least one of those costumes, worn by Riff's girlfriend, Velma, has nothing to do with the time period or character and too much to do with Las Vegas-style cheesecake.
But again, the dancing is wonderful.
The plot? Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" brought to the rough summer streets of grimy New York, for those who somehow missed the commotion "West Side Story" caused. Tony sees Maria and falls in love. Maria does likewise. Her brother, Bernardo, is the leader of the Sharks and is about to set a time and place for a rumble with the Jets, headed by Tony's best friend, Riff.
Stars cross, hearts and bodies meld, people die and the world outside still doesn't seem to care.
Jamie Dawn Gangi is beautiful as Maria, her voice as gorgeous as her melting eyes, which are brimming with all the love that should be a mutual thing between the couple. Breithaupt manages just enough show of affection to make their tragic story work--but without the charge that might have put this production into the four-star category.
Rita Rehn, another non-student performer, makes a strong Anita, supported by Kirk Derby's angry Bernardo. Michael Berry is so charismatic as Riff that he seems as if he should have been the star of the show. The Jets and Sharks act as well as they dance, and the women make the most of every chance they get to steal a scene in this male-biased musical.
Barnical's direction is impressive. Every scene is so well-rehearsed, these kids must have been at it for months. With such a huge cast, and an effective but tricky set to move around (cleverly designed by Jeff Thompson), this precision gives the whole production its polish.
Kerry Duse's orchestra doesn't fare so well in the notorious barn-like theater. Every instrument in the seven-member ensemble seems to stick out, like too many soloists competing with the singers (directed by Roy Mote).
Still, the story holds its timeless power, and the final scene wrenches the heart and mind as it should. Tony's death and Maria's anguish (a slight shift from Shakespeare's total devastation), the solemn procession of enemies, the silent impotence of government--whether Renaissance prince or modern cop--still glows starkly against the darkness of angry divisions among human beings.
This "West Side Story" is a winner.
"WEST SIDE STORY" Conceived by Jerome Robbins. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Andrew Barnical. Choreography "after" Marge and Jack Tygett. Musical director is Kerry Duse. Vocal director is Roy Mote. Scenic design by Jeff Thompson. Lighting design by John Berger. Costume design by Judy Ryerson. With Stephen Breithaupt, Jamie Dawn Gangi, Rita Rehn, Kirk Derby, Michael Berry, Charles Jackam, Connie Frady and Michael Hickey; with David Lackey as "Tony" for matinee performances. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Nov. 16. Produced by the International Company of USIU at The Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.