**** (out of five)
Among the numerous shows offered by the 2016 Athens and Epidaurus Festival, West Side Story may be one of the most desirable especially for aficionados of Broadway musicals. But you have to be in Athens on the right three days. The lucky ones got to see a robust, indeed quite thrilling production of the classic American musical at the gorgeous Athens Concert Hall.
The ads for the production headline the Camerata Orchestra of the Friends of Music and indeed the group and its conductor Yorgos Petrou deserve a large portion of the credit for the success of the production. In addition to conducting, Petrou is credited with translating the dialogue and shares credit with John Todd for directing.
Let’s begin with a salute to Petrou and the Camerata. He conducted with vigour and the orchestra delivered a full-blooded performance of Leonard Bernstein’s varied and stimulating score. The score has some beautiful melodies but much of the music is visceral and simply astounding. If there is one complaint it is that when the orchestra played fortissimo, they almost drowned out the singers. There was a minor issue, in other words, of the balance between pit and stage.
West Side Story has a rich variety of solo and ensemble singing, dancing and even a ballet sequence. They would tax the resources of the finest theatrical company let alone a largely ad hoc group of performers for only three performances. There may have been some rough edges in the coordination of the dances but overall the Jets and the Sharks, the warring New York gangs of “Americans” and Puerto Ricans, were athletic, realistic and quite good. The ballet sequence was equally well done and enjoyable.
West Side Story is, of course, an American version of Romeo and Juliet in which Tony (Yiannis Kolyvas) falls in love with the lovely Puerto Rican girl Maria (Marina Satti). He is a former Jet and her brother Bernardo (Andreas Voulgaris) is the leader of the Sharks.
Kolyvas represents love, passion and decency. He sings “Maria,” the most beautiful name he ever heard with glee and wonderful emotion. It is not an easy songs but Kolyvas does a fine job with it. His and Satti’s rendition of “Tonight” is equally splendid. When Maria sings “I feel pretty” we agree with her and in the end when tragedy strikes we cry with her.
Marina Satti plays an effective and lovely Maria. When she sings “I feel pretty” no one disagrees with her and when she expresses her love for Tony she has the audience rooting for her. A Maria to love and to cry for.
Eleni Stamidou gets the juicy role of Anita, the Puerto Rican girl who cannot be put down. She defends America with its faults and is a pleasure to watch. Anita is also the woman who is ritually raped by the Jets in the basement of Doc’s drugstore. Her departure is highly dramatic but I wish she had spat on the creeps as she left.
Kostas Koronaios played the sympathetic Doc who watches disgusting behaviour and can do nothing about it. Christos Simardanis was a tough no-nonsense Lt. Schrank and Thodoris Skyftoulis played the ineffectual Officer Krupke.
Paris Mexis relied on brightly painted panels for his stage design. Part of the stage of the Concert Hall can be moved up and down to create a playing area above for the balcony scene. The New York skyline is shown at times and with Yorgos Tellas’s judicious lighting the effect was colourful and appropriately unrealistic.
Having the cast miked has become almost de rigueur in musicals and sometimes even in straight plays and there is probably nothing we can do about it. The Concert Hall is large and it may be essential to have mikes to go past the pit. But the mikes in this production were taped on the side of the faces of the actors and they looked like unhealthy tumours. Inevitably what we heard was what the loud speakers delivered. There are modern miking systems which have not reached Athens.
Petrou chose quite sensibly to translate the dialogue but let the songs be sung in English. The production generated energy, beautiful singing, fine dancing and had the audience in its metaphorical hands. A thoroughly enjoyable evening at the theatre.