PROVIDENCE -- Amanda Dehnert has garnered widespread praise for the energy and imagination she has injected into Trinity Repertory Company musicals, from "My Fair Lady" to "Annie."
"West Side Story," her latest venture at Trinity (where she is associate artistic director) shows why. The Jets and Sharks rumble on a mostly bare stage, leaping past audience members onto metal gratings, dancing up a storm that substitutes its own thunder for that of Jerome Robbins, and generating a real sense of event among the Trinity regulars.
Dehnert and choreographer Sharon Jenkins make a number of choices, aesthetic and economic. (It's not easy for a standing repertory company to stage Broadway musicals.) Singing is a higher priority than acting. The choreography chooses sensuality over grace. The young performers, many of them making their Trinity debuts, stress innocence over experience.
These may be valid artistic choices for "West Side Story," but they also prevent the musical from being all that it should be. Each decision by Dehnert and Jenkins makes it too obvious that something else has been sacrificed. And there have been too many fine productions (most recently last year's at the North Shore Music Theatre) that don't sacrifice anything.
Again, Dehnert is after something more contemporary and relevant than a traditional staging offers, with little more than white-painted titles delineating one location from another. But that, too, is part of the problem. "West Side Story" is a work of genius (several geniuses, actually), but it is still a child of the '50s. Its poses are those of rebels without causes; its musical accents reflect Leonard Bernstein's interest in the jazz of the time; and its politics yearn for a kind of ethnic integration that seems to be an ideal of the past.
Dehnert's boss, Oskar Eustis, pays tribute to her in the program notes for musicals that "honor the original while blowing the dust off, eliminating performance conventions that have ossified over the years and revealing the work as fresh and new."
Ironically, it's by decontextualizing the work from the '50s that you show the cobwebs. Because of the multicultural casting, in which one actor might play a member of either gang, you need a scorecard to tell the Jets from the Sharks. Some cast members do double duty: Rachael Warren plays both Anybodys (the Jets' tomboy) and one of Anita's girls in the Shark posse. The gang members periodically retreat to the onstage benches, where they become something of a collective Greek chorus.
This may highlight a noble we're-all-the-same-under-the-skin sentiment, but it also undercuts the implacability of the ethnic tensions, originally between Anglos and Puerto Ricans, that are at the heart of the misery that ruins any possibility for Tony and Maria. Here the Jets, with their dropped r's, seem to be a gang of wayward Bostonians.
Tony (Tony Yazbeck) and Maria (Nina Negri) need all the help they can get because neither their acting nor their singing is anything more than pleasant. It's hard to imagine that Yazbeck's Tony has ever been in a gang, and Negri makes Maria's nerdiness hard to get past.
It's the secondary performances that help lift this production. Warren and Tommar Wilson as Riff do the best job at combining singing and acting talents, with Warren's "Somewhere" the prettiest number in the production. The gang members, male and female, are well cast.
The 16-piece youth orchestra under the expert direction of Karl Shymanovitz does justice to this greatest of all Broadway scores, filling the theater with the heat that symbolizes the production at its best. The rhythm section sizzles. Some of the playing in the slower numbers, though, underlines the lack of lyricism in the production.
My guess is that the strengths of this production quash the weaknesses for those who haven't thought about this iconic musical in a while. Dehnert is obviously talented at directing and conceptualizing, even if she doesn't tell the whole tale of "West Side Story" in this production.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
West Side Story
Musical in two acts. Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. From William Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet. Based on conception by Jerome Robbins. Directed by: Amanda Dehnert. Set, David Jenkins. Lights, John Ambrosone. Costumes, William Lane. Choreography, Sharon Jenkins. Fights choreographed by Craig Handel. At: Trinity Repertory Company, through June 6. 401-351-4242.