Bogus accents and lame costumes aside, this “West Side Story” has charisma and sheen to spare
DOES THE POP BALLADEER Christian Bautista strike you as a gang member in a past life--a ringleader even?
If you can get past the idea of the lanky, airbrushed, choirboy-handsome Bautista as Tony, founder no less of the roughhousing street clique The Jets in Stages’ production of “West Side Story” (at the Meralco Theater until Oct. 12), then you’re well on your way to enjoying the pleasures of this attractively mounted, generally diverting re-creation of the classic Bernstein-Sondheim musical.
The presence of Bautista--charismatic but physically and vocally unimposing--is the casting equivalent of a rhetorical stretch. And since this production was specifically mounted as a star vehicle for him, the show can’t help but mirror its leading man’s strengths and vulnerabilities.
Like Bautista, this “West Side Story” has appeal, charisma and surface sheen to spare. Aided by John Batalla’s proficient lighting, the actors look lithe and the scenery (by Mio Infante) is perfectly photogenic.
Bautista, with his pleasant midrange sound, sings his songs with soulful if wary care, every note strategically placed for minimum strain on his light vocals (he has no alternate).
That safe performance finds an echo in the show itself, which breaks no stylistic ground, hews close to the conventional, and is disarming in its sleekness without half-trying.
Much of this “West Side Story” takes its cue not from the stage version but from the more familiar movie incarnation--a softer, dreamier take that lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents themselves eventually hated.
“Bogus accents, bogus dialect, bogus costumes. I think it’s also terribly acted,” sniffed Laurents in a recent New York Times interview.
And Sondheim, in an earlier one: “In ‘West Side Story’ you see a gang dancing down a real New York street in color-coordinated sneakers, and you just don’t believe it... They’re just filming a stage musical, and that’s not for me.”
The bogusness afflicts this “West Side Story” to some degree. The hit-and-miss accent is courtesy most glaringly of Gian Magdangal, an otherwise well-cast Riff.
Jake Macapagal does better with his Latino-tinged lines, though he and his Puerto Rican cohorts have to wear overly showy costumes (by Eric Pineda) that channel the movie’s Technicolor palette several iridescent notches higher. The Sharks in neon; Laurents, 91, would have a heart attack.
He’d be safer with the women, who are this show’s undisputed class acts.
West End star Joanna Ampil, in her Manila debut, is splendid as a willful young Maria, her soprano finding powerful emotive footing in Leonard Bernstein’s peerless music.
Erstwhile pop singer Karylle is a fresh, radiant beauty with a beguiling voice that could use a bit more stability, but, she too, shines in the role.
Australia-based Rowena Vilar, completely unknown here until four weeks ago, can now say goodbye to anonymity with her explosive turn as Anita.
A fine singer and a spectacular dancer, Vilar’s line extensions in the fizzy “America” number are a wonder to behold. And when she duets with Ampil—the show’s two strongest performers dramatizing “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” through character, melody and lyric—the show reaches its shivery, glowing peak.
Next to Vilar, Pam G’s Anita seems tamer, more subdued, though by no means dishonorable. Vilar simply sizzles more, especially when she throws herself into the fabled Jerome Robbins choreography.
The rest of the cast members are an agile, talented corps, but--except for Red Concepcion as the hot-headed A-rab--they lack individuality; and in the dancing sequences, crucial cohesion.
James Laforteza does a yeoman’s job, faithfully recreating Robbins’ iconic dances. That is achievement enough, except that Laforteza seems unable to leave well enough alone.
The “Somewhere” number, as in the movie now sung by Tony and Maria, features a dream ballet needlessly embellished with Laforteza’s own movements.
The sequence, Robbins’ referential take on a musical-theater convention pioneered by Agnes de Mille in “Oklahoma!,” hasn’t aged well. As staged by Laforteza, it juts out even more for being so at odds with the jazzy, crackling angularity of the rest of Robbins’ work in the musical.
It’s the one chintzy, cringe-worthy moment in a production that, directed with fluidity and expressiveness by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (herself the Maria of Repertory Philippines’ “West Side Story” in 1981), by and large honors its material well.
There is one more thing to say of Bautista. While this production was originally built around his skills and widespread pop appeal, he has gallantly swung the spotlight to his more commanding leading ladies, ceding the final bow to them every night at curtain call.
In that sense, at least--yes, he proves to be the perfect Tony.
Stages’ “West Side Story” runs until Oct. 12 at the Meralco Theater. For tickets, call Ticketworld at 891-9999 or Stages at 818-1111 loc. 225, or visit Ticketworld at www.ticketworld.com.ph