Saturday night’s performance of "West Side Story" at the IU Opera Theatre didn’t open, it erupted. There was edge-of-the-seat, hair-rising-on-the-back-of-my-neck, tension as the orchestra played the prologue and the boys of the Jets and the Sharks danced out their conflict. Dance is central to this production. Dance was the essence of the heat of the competition in the "Dance at the Gym," the tension and release of "The Rumble," the almost balletic otherworldly quality of the dream of "Somewhere," and the cruelty of the "Taunting Scene." Guest choreographer and stage director, Joey McKneely has done a superb job throughout of making the dance and the physical action a central part of the drama. More than once, I found myself simply amazed at the talent and execution of the cast.
"West Side Story" takes a very large cast, and most have to be able to sing and dance. This kind of talent is rare even at IU, and The Opera Theatre’s production has double cast only the two lovers and the singer for "Somewhere." Saturday night David Sadlier was Tony and Carelle Flores was Maria. Catlin Burke was the singer."
Vocally, Sadlier seemed a little out of place with his accent and operatic sound, but his beautifully controlled high register was gorgeous in the duets with Flores. Flores made a tender and lovely Maria. Lauren McCarthy was a fiery dancer and sang well as her girl friend, Anita. Christopher Gobles as the leader of the Jets was energetic, open, even flowery, while Nicholas Cacciola was dark, intense and heroic as the leader of the Sharks.
In addition to the singing roles, the non-singing roles of "West Side Story" were vital as these characters were the only adults. Arthur Lathrop was sympathetic as the pharmacist, Doc. Clay Sanderson was effectively abrasive as Lieutenant Schrank and Jeffrey Eisner was appropriately lumpish and clumsy as Officer Krupke.
Throughout the evening conductor Michael Barrett kept the tension up on the stage and in the pit. The orchestra is always an active part of "West Side Story" and Saturday it was eloquent.
C. David Higgins’ sets were efficient and atmospheric. Michael Schwandt’s lighting was intimately intermeshed with the light, the dark and the shadows of the drama on stage.
"West Side Story" is almost fifty years old. By now whatever turf wars there were, are over. If they’re still alive, Jets and Sharks are probably great grand parents and live in the suburbs. But there are still tensions between first generation and new immigrants, questions about who are and who aren’t real Americans. In these stressful times, it’s good to see a show where common experience, even if it is a tragedy, erases these divisions.
"West Side Story" plays this Friday and Saturday nights at eight in the Musical Arts Center.