Upper West Side Comes to Lower West Coast

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Angelinos who love Shakespeare and Dance may be itching to see the new Broadway production of West Side Story that's been busy winning Tonys and playing to sold out audiences in Times Square; however, as someone who loves Shakespeare, Dance and West Side Story, consider your self warned.

westsidestorycover.jpgThe production, directed by the *81-year old Arthur Laurents — the man who translated Shakespeare's verse into New York street talk back in 1957 — is a dud. The cast, with the exception of Karen Olivo's Anita, is bland and the decision to have the Sharks speak and sing in their native Spanish is half-hearted and only works sporadically. The show will no doubt tour — perhaps by the time it gets to LA, the cast will be better and the tempi faster — but why bother? This Saturday night, the Aero in Santa Monica is screening a 70mm print of the Oscar-winning film version, which remains better than any staged production of West Side Story I've seen.

Lovers of live Shakespeare and live Dance are in luck though, as next week another New York-based Romeo & Juliet is coming to LA's Music Center. American Ballet Theater is presenting Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet choreography set to Sergei Prokofiev's famous 1940 score.

RJ_promo_crop.jpgI saw a performance of the LA-bound staging earlier this week. As drama, MacMillan's vision is often lacking. The story traces the main arcs of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, but there are holes — which only make sense now that research has shown that Prokofiev initially wrote the ballet with a happy ending.

MacMillan's version ends tragically but the story moves slowly. The 1980's sets are big and pompous, the costumes old and stuffy — lots of tights and doublets that look like they're made from old tapestries. Much of the choreography consists of crowds fussing about (admittedly with grace and style) as the principals act out the rough storyline of Capulets versus Montagues in broad pantomime.

This ballet version of Romeo & Juliet is one of those examples of the whole not adding up to the sum of its parts — but it must be said there are some absolutely stunning parts. What MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet lacks in dramatic thrust and cohesion, it more than makes up for in two thrilling scenes: The Balcony Scene, naturally, and The Finale in Juliet's tomb. Both of these beautiful scenes translate the poetry and emotion in Shakespeare's words into the language of human motion.

The Balcony Scene, one of the most famous in all dramatic literature, is supposed to convey a bursting youthful desire. Even in top-notch stagings, these emotions don't always come across — a production of Romeo & Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe Theater I saw last month was charming, but it didn't transport me. Seeing ABT's dance version of the Balcony Scene on Monday, I was completely swept up in Romeo and Juliet's affair. MacMillan's elaborate lifts and spins may be more than most couples do on a first date — or any date — but the choreography captures the flight people hope to feel when they fall in love.

Helping to achieve this effect is the skill of ABT's principal dancers. Each of the five performances here in LA has a different cast. The Romeo I saw — the tall, graceful but chilly Marcello Gomez — dances the lead on Friday night. Herman Cornejo plays Romeo at the Sunday Matinee, but I saw him as a wildly charismatic Mercutio, a role he dances at the first performance one week from tonight.

Also on opening night, ABT presents two of ballet's most glamorous stars. Irina Dvorovenko — whose giant eyes you may have seen staring out at you from Movado advertisements — is Juliet that night and Romeo is the Italian heartthrob Roberto Bolle, a man who is to European magazine covers, advertisements and fashion shows what Scarlett Johansson is here in the states.

ABT's production of Romeo & Juliet starts next Thursday, July 16, running through Sunday, July 19, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

* Thanks to the Bill, who caught our error. Laurents is indeed 91.