WEST SIDE STORY
Village Theatre, 303 Front N., 425-392-2202. $22-$40. 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat.; 7 p.m. select Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sun. and select Sat. ends Sat., June 30
EVEN THE MOST protective of West Side Story fans have to admit that Arthur Laurents' book and some of Stephen Sondheim's gamine lyrics started to creak some time ago (even Sondheim now bridles at his notion that a newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrant would trill "It's alarming/how charming I feel"). Any production hoping for freshness has to approach the show with the swoon of romantic discovery, engaging it as something pure rather than already known. Though you'll still get a tingle from those Leonard Bernstein horns, director Steve Tomkins' Village Theatre staging feels determined but, well, used.
Bernstein's music here is, for my money, still the single most exhilarating Broadway score of the last century, but, if I may be so bold, it has one gorgeous flaw: The top note of "Maria" is so high, it guarantees that no one able to reach it is ever going to convince you he used to be in a gang. Golden-voiced Cheyenne Jackson, a big, gorgeous guy whom the Village seems to trot out every time they need a big, gorgeous guy, could hawk toothpaste in a heartbeat, but his Tony, like every other Tony, isn't about to worry anyone in a rumble. Happily, despite a palpable moment of reflection before venturing into his head voice, he sings with an ingratiating ease and warmth.
What parches Jackson's performance, and the rest of the production, is a lax matter-of-factness; gushers like "We got magic!" trickle out without the guileless wonder required for us to stomach them. Director Tomkins is banking on our familiarity, ticking off the high points on his fingers, so the show only works insofar as, yes, we do remember it and, yeah, it's West Side Story, so how bad can it be? The dancing, though ably executed by a cast giving it all they've got, is contained and veeeery caaaaaareful, and as such doesn't move imperceptibly between action and arabesques the way it needs to if we're going to accept street toughs pointing their toes. Seema Sueko's Maria is full of life—she animates Jackson—but she, again, is allowed a wryness that knows too much. The only person completely able to walk across the surrounding flatness is Anna Lauris, as a no-nonsense Anita; she's made something real of the part and uses the music as release.
One final note: A staging that apes the movie version in any way (and this show does) should be required by some merciful law to further shun veracity and cut the original production's Dream Ballet. Some romantic notions are best left to the past.
Union Garage, 1416 10th, 720-1942. $12, pay-what-you-will Thurs. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. ends Sat., June 9
A THEATRE UNDER the Influence gets pretty far on sheer novelty by taking on Bartlett Cormack's brittle, funny cops-and-gangsters commentary The Racket, written in the late '20s and crackling with the kind of dialogue James Cagney kept tucked under his tongue. The evening plays out on Brad Cook's top-notch period set, a police precinct outside Chicago illustrated with surprising verisimilitude and just the right amount of nostalgia, and James Venturini's production itself boasts similar attributes, if lacking the same sturdy confidence.
Tom Fraser is too tentative as Captain McQuigg, an unethically righteous cop out to rid the town of Nick Scarsi (a sly Cook, again), its highest-ranking mobster. The play hinges on the tug of war between two corrupt forces, and Fraser isn't dynamic enough to hold up his end of the bargain as one o' dem guys, tentative in gesture and playing a messy game of tag with the script's period lingo and his character's surly Midwestern accent.
His hesitancy is indicative of the evening's biggest problem: Actors just aren't trained to talk like this anymore, see. Cormack's writing is slangy, vintage fastball; about half the cast is throwing very sincere underhand pitches. Tough-talking melodramas like this are basically hard-boiled, breakneck little farces, and you get the feeling Venturini may have slowed things down to punch up plot points. The slower the delivery, unfortunately, the more everything sounds like Greek—you listen once to hear what's being said, then again to figure out what it means.
What makes the night is the kick you get from Cormack's snarling wit and the handful of performers in his large cast who can comfortably lob it at you. Chief among these are James Weidman, curling his lower lip as an arrogant patrolman who pushes his defiance of Scarsi to a crucial breaking point, and Shannon Kipp, the play's sole female, who, after an uncertain start (Venturini's gaze occasionally wanders), totally won me over by knocking home a pitch-perfect, full-bodied take on a softhearted dame. If you're willing to roll with some of the production's more feeble punches, The Racket's wiseass world is worth a visit.