West Side Story | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

I left the Byham Theater in tears.

I had just seen the opening night of Pittsburgh Musical Theater's production of West Side Story, and all the way from Downtown to Churchill I sobbed. What was wrong? Was it the forgotten lines? The missed lighting cues? The Maria and Anita whose excessive make-up came way too close to blackface? The man in seat F22 who constantly crinkled his candy bag, then crunched during some of the show's most eloquent moments?

No, the tears were a message that came in loud and clear: Fifty-one years after it premiered on Broadway, West Side Story is still one damn good show -- notwithstanding mistakes, quibbles and insolent audience members.

What takes place on stage seems ripped from today's headlines: Gang wars, racial tensions, murder and mayhem, the yearning to belong, to believe, to know that something's coming ... and that it's gonna be great.

But this isn't Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's Robbins and Bernstein and Sondheim, and the final show of the 2008 PMT season. And what a ride! If there's a weak link, it didn't rear its greased-back head. Instead, what emerged was a taut if sprawling ensemble, well-rehearsed, strong in form and finesse.

The backbone of the show is the lovers Maria (played by Kathlene Queen) and Tony (David Toole). He's macho in a Scott Bakula sort of way; she's pretty and witty and gay without being a threat. The chemistry between them sizzles, yet it's never vulgar. These are two young people who believe there's a place for them, with peace and quiet and open air ... somewhere. In less capable hands, the lead-in to "One Hand, One Heart"' might have come across laughable; here it unites heart and soul in a simple, stunning theatrical moment.

"America" is flawless, and proof of what talented young people can accomplish under the strong direction of a talented choreographer (here, Lisa Elliott) and director (Colleen Petrucci). The most singularly spectacular number is "The Ballet," all pink and blue pastels, and so brilliantly lit by Cory Pattak.

Another big asset is easily overlooked: the set. The visuals are strong from the onset; the scrim is an aerial view of New York City rooftops, circa late '50s, and the theme continues throughout the show ... gritty brick walls, wobbly fire escapes, dark alleys, even a billboard promising that to "be really refreshed, enjoy Coke."

The ending still stuns, still shocks, still packs a wallop. Her lover is dead on the cold ground, yet Maria refuses to let him go. She gives up only when she realizes the American Dream is now a nightmare: "I can kill now," she screams, "because I hate now!"


West Side Story continues through Sun., May 18. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. 412 456-6666 or www.pgharts.com

click to enlarge A place for them: Kathleen Queen (left) and David Toole, as Maria and Tony, in Pittsburgh Musical Theater's West Side Story. Photo courtesy of Patti Brahim.
A place for them: Kathleen Queen (left) and David Toole, as Maria and Tony, in Pittsburgh Musical Theater's West Side Story. Photo courtesy of Patti Brahim.

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