West Side Story
North Carolina Theatre
Through Oct. 25
Stones in His Pockets
Through Nov. 1
Take two works that basically exist at opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. One's a major Broadway musical with all the trimmings—or nearly all the trimmings: a large cast, large set pieces, a big orchestra and choreography that fill the biggest stage in the region. All singing, all dancing—and, thankfully, all acting.
By comparison, the other is a more modest offering: Two actors who somehow manage to inhabit 15 characters between them in a smaller room, a lot closer to their audience. When it's time for a scene change, no army of unseen stagehands trundle a set piece the size of a small house off stage; instead, the two just grab a chair, a bench or a trunk and walk it from one place to the other as the lights dim. Costume and character changes, when they occur, take place in full view of the audience, without the actors ever leaving stage.
Where's the real theater? The answer: in both.
Temple Theater's production of Stones in His Pockets ups the ante traditionally associated with intimate theater. Under Debra Gillingham's direction, actors Michael Brocki and Derrick Ivey face the challenges of the quick changes that riddle Marie Jones' script. With little more than the removal of a cap or a coat, Ivey and Brocki effectively distinguish between the colorful villagers of a small Irish town and denizens of the film industry there to make a major motion picture. With Gillingham, they find the humor when these worlds collide—and probe the tragedy when a death occurs in their midst. Only a small handful of characters are less than fully developed in this evening's entertainment.
With a nip here, a tuck there—and 10 minor characters cut from the script—North Carolina Theatre's production of West Side Story is a somewhat truncated version of the Big Show, but is still a competent, engaging version of the classic collaboration between director Jerome Robbins, playwright Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and then-budding lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Though director/ choreographer Joshua Bergasse cannily spaces his charges across the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage for big numbers, including "Dance at the Gym," the show's reduction in forces still gives gang warfare scenes like "The Rumble" a bit more intimacy than is desirable.
Despite that drawback, this West Side registers with strong performances by principals. Josh Young and Catherine Cheng Jones both evoke a numinous sincerity as romantic leads Tony and Maria, the Romeo and Juliet figures in this gritty, urban retelling of Shakespeare's tragedy. Their voices are as sure as their characters in duets like "Tonight" and "Somewhere." Leo Ash Evens effortlessly captures the bravado of Riff, leader of the white street gang, the Jets; Freddy Ramirez convincingly conveys the elegant menace and machismo of Bernardo, who heads the encroaching Puerto Rican street gang, the Sharks.
Though I normally applaud cross-racial casting, a script so focused on examining the racial divide in mid-century big-city America brings into question the placement of the talented Asmeret Ghebremichael as Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, and a captivating Vanessa Van Vrancken as Rosalia.
Jones' work in the sobering finale is gripping. And though we'd like to relegate this tale of turf, retribution and xenocide to the '50s, when it originated, not only do gangs still rule the inner city underworld, this West Side Story opened the same week a justice of the peace refused to marry an interracial couple in Louisiana.
It was also the same week members of the Tectonic Theater Project premiered a new epilogue to their groundbreaking work The Laramie Project, revealing what happened when they returned to the Wyoming town 10 years after Shepard's murder to see what changes had occurred.
So, please, let's not be fooled. Is West Side Story a period piece? Yes, it is. And, tragically, we are still in the midst of that period ourselves.