WEST SIDE STORY – Most of it, anyway

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

WEST SIDE STORY, now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, is not the most moving of theatrical experiences. It is the National Tour of the revised version which opened in February 2009 and received two Tonys – Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actress for “Anita”, Karen Olivo. The original production debuted fifty-three years ago and put Broadway on its ear – including the introduction of Stephen Sondheim as the show’s lyricist. A great chunk of his text is now delivered in Spanish. The original stage direction of Arthur Laurents has been re-created by David Saint, associate director of the 2009 revival production. Joey McNeely is in charge of the choreography designed by the incomparable Jerome Robbins – who grabbed the Tony for his work back in ’58. Current set designs by James Youmans will prove accommadating to the needs of the various theaters on the tour. I’ve seen Manhattan done better. A generic Made-For-TV atmosphere hangs over this production. But there are some fine performances, the dancing is hot, and Leonard Bernstein’s score remains evergreen. The problems sit with the leading couple – Ali Ewoldt as “Maria” and Kyle Harris as “Tony”. In spite of his fixed smile and enthusiastic kissing, Mr. Harris needs to be replaced.

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KYLE HARRIS (Tony) and ALI EWOLDT (Maria)

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The Broadway Company. Photo, Joan Marcus

Michelle Aravena is outstanding as “Anita”. She is a solid mezzo, a gorgeous dancer, and packs a wallop with “A Boy Like That!” Triple threat performance chops come from Joseph J. Simeone as “Riff” and German Santiago as “Bernardo”. Alexandra Frohlinger gets the MVP as “Anybodys”. She is perfect for the role and surprises with a fine rendition of “Somewhere”. For the rest of that spiritually starved scene – I wished I were somewhere else.

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MICHELLE ARAVENA (Anita) and ALEXANDRA FROHLINGER (Anybodys)

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JOSEPH J. SIMEONE (Riff) — GERMAN SANTIAGO (Bernardo)

I am weary of the peanut-sized nasal-twanged Disneyfied sounds that for two decades have so dominated the Broadway stage – particularly in the sounds-like-a-Soprano Department. Body mikes, state of the art sound boards and the engineers who control them offer a wash of possibilities to the singer who otherwise cannot be heard past Row E. The end product is that irritating cookie-cutter knock-off of another Little Mermaid.

The original “Maria”, Carol Lawrence, received a Tony nomination for her stunning performance. There was a reason. A 10-second sample from her definitive rendition of “I Feel Pretty” is enough to distinguish the substance and guts, sweetness and passion of a full-fledged ingenue-type Broadway Soprano. From this nearly extinct variety of musical performer came those spine-tingling responses intended by genius composer Leonard Bernstein. Pushing Ali Ewoldt’s microphone up to LOUD never sparked such a thrill.

Whoever told Kyle Harris “you’ll be swell, you’ll be great” is lying to him. At some point, even the performer must assume some responsibility in knowing their own vocal limitations before signing on the dotted line. “Tony” is one of the best Tenor roles in the Broadway repertoire. For 52 years, young tenors have kept their spirits motivated and their High Notes practiced for the possibility of performing this one particular role. Since the original production closed on Broadway, West Side Story has been presented over and over in every high school, college, and community playhouse around the world. The show has been recorded 25 times. The vast majority attending the Opening Night performance at the Orpheum Theater knows how it goes. The air was hummin’, but out of Kyle Harris – nothin’ was comin’. Mr. Harris’ sadly absent Tenor range will not appear somehow somewhere on this junket.

Buyer, beware.

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.


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