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THEATER : Choreography the Star of 'West Side Story' : Seeing the play staged as a nearly uninterrupted dance piece brings a renewed vitality and excitement to the popular show.

September 02, 1993|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Surprisingly, the star of PCPA Theaterfest's "West Side Story" revival turns out to be the stunning original choreography by Michael Barnard.

Of course, "West Side Story" has other things going for it--for starters, classic show tunes and a tear-jerker plot borrowed from Shakespeare. Jerome Robbins' resetting of "Romeo and Juliet" amid rival street gangs in New York made "West Side Story" hard-hitting and topical when it burst on the stage in 1957.

Enlisting the talents of Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) didn't hurt either.

But while star-crossed romance and gang warfare never seem to go out of style, the familiarity bred of film, record and innumerable revivals has inevitably blunted the show's edge. Even once-innovative songs such as "Maria," "Tonight" and "America" are doing double-duty as ad jingles.

Happily, though, seeing this production staged as a nearly uninterrupted dance piece--with all the energy, momentum and visual assault intended by its creators--brings a renewed vitality and excitement that's well worth the visit.

Barnard's choreography provides far more than ornamentation; his moves, expertly tailored to the angled confines of PCPA's thrust stage, further character and situation. Whether in modified jumping jacks for the opening number on the basketball court, in the fighting jabs and punches incorporated into the gang members' songs, or in the wild abandon of their girlfriends, this story is told as much through bodies as it is through voices.

Credit director Paul Barnes, whose style usually runs toward classical drama, for yielding the spotlight to Barnard's highly physical emphasis. It's a focus that's paid off handsomely.

It's also all the more impressive, given a non-professional cast of PCPA conservatory students and alumni, who push themselves through Barnard's most demanding moves without compromise.

The production also benefits from the stellar singing of Melissa Rain Anderson, who gives us a plausibly innocent and love-struck Maria.

Kurt Genge proves less believable as Tony, her Polish Romeo. It's all he can do to hit the musical notes, and some of the emotional ones are left to our imagination.

Maria's hot-tempered brother, Bernardo (Mark Alan Padgett), is right on the money. While her best friend, Anita (Tina P. Stafford), makes a dubious Puerto Rican, at best, there's a more important authenticity in her passion and devotion. As Jets leader Riff, Derek Wood has the moves down pat, but we can barely hear him.

Voice projection is the most serious shortcoming overall, a problem that will only get worse when the production moves to the outdoor Solvang Festival Theatre next week. Despite the logistics problems caused by all the movement, some sort of body mike system is seriously needed.

Ironically, while prophetic for its time, the show's treatment of gang violence proves to be one of its most dated elements: The deaths are accidental, the result of gang rivalries getting out of hand. It's a dramatic conceit that pales beside our daily reality--that of teen-agers slain in the course of business as usual.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"West Side Story," performed at 8 p.m. through Saturday at the Allan Hancock College Marian Theatre in Santa Maria; and at the Festival Theatre in Solvang, opening at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 9 and continuing Wednesdays through Sundays until Sept. 26. Tickets are $11-$17. Call (800) 549-PCPA for reservations or information.

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