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The Jets fly high in â€"West Side Story” revival

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The missus and I are big fans of “West Side Story” even though it is sort of quaint and predictable no matter how a director stages it. Theaters have to assume that everyone in the audience has seen the show and know what they like since, well, everyone in the theater likely HAS already seen the show and know what they like and expect the theater to deliver on that expectation. If the theater doesn’t do that, there will be trouble. Yes, I said trouble — with a capital T — and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool ... . Oh wait, that is from a different musical juggernaut.

Maybe staging “West Side Story” is so comfortingly predictable because directors don’t want to mess with perfection too much. Even the story it is based on — “Romeo and Juliet” — gets more adaptations done on it because even William Shakespeare could have used a good editor to trim down his shows a bit. But that is a column for another time.

So, “West Side Story” is playing in the Emerald City these days as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first staging of this work. It is being staged as it was originally, not as it appeared in the hit 1961 movie. But even those differences are slight.

The 5th Avenue Theatre pays homage to this iconic American musical by producing a “once-in-a-lifetime” fully realized version featuring a full 25-piece orchestra and an enormous cast of 43 actors, singers and dancers.

“This might be the only time in your life that you’ll see a production of ‘West Side Story’ with the original choreography, a full orchestra playing the full score, and a cast of more than 40 performers,” said director Bill Berry. “To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this classic show, we are committed to producing a fully realized version — as its creators originally intended.”

It really is a masterpiece of American theater with the score by some dude named Leonard Bernstein; the book by  Arthur Laurents, the same cat who wrote “Gypsy”; Stephen Sondheim doing the lyrics; and choreography by Jerome Robbins, of “Fiddler on the Roof“ and “The King and I.”

A show by any one of these guys would have made it a classic. A show by two of them would have made it a landmark work, but having all four of them together on a project  would be like having the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Bono do an album. To bring that vision alive, the theater has hired Bob Richard re-create Robbins’ landmark choreography. Richard is the ideal artist for the job, having danced in many productions of the show, including the last that Robbins himself oversaw before his death in 1998.

The original show was a winner of two Tony Awards and 10 Academy Awards and brought the world the great songs of “Maria,” “America,” “Tonight” and “Somewhere” as it tells the story of two feuding New York City street gangs — the Jets and the Sharks — and the young lovers caught in the cross fire.

The show is just mystifyingly good. There really is no other way to explain it. Looking back on its 50 years of taking to the stage, it is amazing how fresh and modern the show and themes really are. Either people will never change or the script remains as timeless as the Shakespeare original.

Tickets to “West Side Story” are priced from $20 to $75. The show runs through next week. Tickets are available by calling 206.625.1900 or at www.5thavenue.org.

How I roll

And now for a bit of clarification to those readers out there who called me out on my review of “Pirates of Penzance” last week.

I dissed the show a bit when I took a shot about it having a keyboardist instead of a full orchestra. True, it has a nine-piece orchestra behind the rather small stage and the keyboardist was conducting them. My point was that seeing the orchestra — not just hearing it — is part of what makes a musical a musical. Capital Playhouse has its orchestra pit on the side of the stage so that the players aren’t visible either. I just don’t like it. I want to see the players who are making the music. That’s just me. That’s how I roll. It has nothing to do with whether they are good or not or if the musical accompaniment is a piano or an orchestra although I would — and have — argued that an orchestra is preferred. I know there are limitations to a stage and that a visible orchestra is not always possible in the minds of directors. I would say that finding a solution to that problem so the orchestra gets its time in the spotlight is what makes theater so great. Case closed until the next theater stages a musical. Oh hey, looks like Tacoma Little Theatre is staging “Best Little Whorehouse” this week. The debate will continue.

"The Pirates of Penzance" runs at the Lakewood Playhouse through June 17 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 253.588.0042 or www.lakewoodplayhouse.org. The theater is located by the Pierce Transit Center in the Lakewood Towne Center complex.

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