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Sharks, Jets and a lot of fun

November 28, 2008|Philip Brandes; David C. Nicholsl

The Musical Theatre of Los Angeles revival of "West Side Story" at the Hudson Backstage Theatre is outrageously better than anyone has a reasonable right to expect, especially given the familiarity of the material and the limited stage resources on hand.

Director Kenneth Gray-Scolari and his committed troupe handily meet both challenges in a precision staging that churns with relevance and urgency while strictly adhering to the period concept of the show's creators.

Jerome Robbins' and Arthur Laurents' 1957 resetting of the Romeo and Juliet story amid clashing white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York still resonates with lessons about prejudice and intolerance, starting with well-cast leads. Clint Carter's Tony is every inch the callow, lovesick dreamer who nonetheless endears himself, ably complemented by Laura Darrell, who delivers the tongue-twisting Stephen Sondheim lyrics of chaste Maria's solo flights with suitably angelic pipes. Also noteworthy are Benjamin Marquis as Sharks leader Bernardo and Janet Krupin as his feisty girl, Anita. Musical director Greg Haake's 10-piece live orchestra renders Leonard Bernstein's classic score with rich textures and emotional swells.

The real star here, though, is the reimagined choreography by Arthur L. Ross, whose invention is born of the necessity of squeezing 32 performers onto an impossibly tiny stage. Watching the entire company high-step its way without an inch to spare through the stylized prologue, the community dance at the gym, and the rumble scene makes a sardine can look roomy by comparison.

The only misstep is the second-act ballet, which seems clunky and formulaic compared with the more free-form movement everywhere else -- it's a dated element ripe for cutting, though a credit to the company's respect for the piece as written.

Without radical revisionism there are no big surprises here, but for "West Side Story" fans and first-timers this one's passion and execution surpass many a better-funded revival in larger venues.

-- Philip Brandes

"West Side Story," Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 21. $34.99. (323) 960-7712. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Even more daddy than they wanted

The unassuming pleasures of "The Daddy Machine" at Celebration Theatre go beyond its kicky staging and deft performers. This sweetly wacky musical, based on Johnny Valentine's book about two kids with lesbian moms who get more fathers than they counted on from the title device, avoids talking down to children or talking at adults.

"It's All Good," sings Stonewall (Joe Souza), the family dog, cavorting with his chew toys before designer Alexandra Smith's set, which sports a festooned cardboard construct of school-pageant ilk. Dance-happy Harry (D.J. Pierce) and science-minded Sue (Kelly Michelle Smith) normally worry about nothing more than Saturday "special pancakes," while Stoney yearns for the unassembled doghouse in the garage. Today, however, all bets are off, and never judge a Kenmore box by its bling.

After nurturing Momma (Jenny Gattone) loses a filling, Home Depot addict Mom (Susannah Lang) rushes her to the dentist, leaving Harry to wonder what it would be like to have a dad. Faster than you can say Dr. Seuss, the Daddy Machine disgorges "Guy Dad" (Terry Ray), wielding a stack of pancakes. While Sue wrestles with the physics of this strange event, upgraded "Cool Dad" (Freddie Lara) appears. To give away more would only lessen the fun.

Director Fracaswell Hyman and choreographer Ameenah Kaplan keep things affably loose, letting the humor, heart and audience-participation turns of Patricia Loughrey's libretto make their own statement. Under Gerald Sternbach's assured musical direction, Rayme Sciaroni's serviceable, William Finn-meets-Joe Raposo score lands with gusto, sold to the hilt by a wholly endearing cast.

Admittedly, it's children's theater, with all the textual shorthand and presentational broadness that the genre deploys.

Yet well before the finale, "A Little Blessing," the acute cultural point of "Daddy Machine" is inescapable and results in a quietly pertinent, utterly charming family frolic.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Daddy Machine," Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., Saturdays. Ends Dec. 20. $20. (323) 957-1884. Running time: 1 hour.

Seeking peace in the Middle East

In late career, playwright A.R. Gurney has ventured beyond his signature polite studies of neurotic New England WASPs into more politically charged territory, a transition very much in evidence in "O Jerusalem" at NoHo's Chandler Studio Theatre.

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