IF THEATER ENCOURAGES producers to be martyrs, the money, talent, and effort involved in musical theater encourages them
to be kamikaze pilots. There are both good and bad reasons (or, if you prefer, more or less noble reasons) to produce a musical. If you'd like a quick primer in such disparity of motivation, two revivals currently in town reveal all.
ends February 7
West Side Story
Northwest Asian American Theater
ends February 21
Annie is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary with a roadshow revival of this musical about the endearing (and, for that matter, enduring) urchin who travels from an orphanage to the lap of luxury and charms a whole slew of hearts along the way. The idea for this Seattle run was to feature the original leads (with the exception of Annie herself, who has undoubtedly grown too tall) in a classy revival that would help us forget such ill-fated "sequels" as Annie II the movie and Annie Warbucks, the musical.
Somewhere along the way we lost the original Miss Hannigan, keeper of the orphanage, but Sally Struthers does a perfectly credible job as the monstrous orphan-driver, and seems to relish demolishing her real-life "Save the Children" image by tossing the little brats around the stage. Conrad Schuck is a gruff but likable Warbucks, though he's so clearly a softie that there's little suspense in watching his heart melt under the ruthless charm of Annie (Brittny Kissinger).
The problem with this light and tuneful musical is that it wants to win over our hearts automatically, in much the same way that Annie does, with a message of simple-minded optimism and a relaxed exhibition of talent. It's a curiously empty story—one that has the underlying (and not particularly edifying) message that money can indeed buy love. And while it's a hard musical to hate, it's also a hard one to remember.
BY CONTRAST, Northwest Asian American Theater's production of West Side Story has a fraction of the money and resources of the Paramount's monster-truck show, but almost incalculably more heart. Of course the Bernstein musical beats Annie as art anyway, with its deft adaptation of Shakespeare and sublime music, but there's also all the things that really matter about a musical up on the stage: energetic and innovative dancing, passion, and a director's (Chil Kong's) clear understanding of the musical's message of racial tolerance and the inevitable nihilism of violence. Arthur Laurents' book is still astonishingly sharp today, and the show's leads—most notably Richard Sloniker as Riff and Brian Prugalidad as Bernardo—throw themselves like bungee jumpers at the drama. Tony (Tim Yamamura) and Maria (Katie Tupper) both have nice and surprisingly strong voices, and are so enchanting together that they deserve every duet they get. It's also a wonderful touch to have a multicultural cast of Asians and others calling each other "spick" and "wop," pointing up in yet another way both the absurdity of racism and its refusal to die away. There's also a young dancer named Kenny Harlow (he plays Action) who performs back and front flips with jaw-dropping regularity. It's not only a fine production—it's one that reminds you that there are indeed excellent reasons for staging certain musicals.