Theatrical perfection, past and present

Friday, September 14, 2001 at 1:00am

Romeo and Juliet captured the hearts and minds of theatergoers when Shakespeare penned what may well be the finest love story ever. In 1957 at the Wintergarden Theatre in New York, the story took on a new face and timbre. Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and a young upstart, Stephen Sondheim, collaborated to create a musical retelling of the tragedy. Their composition, West Side Story, turned American Musical Theater on its ear. Here was a worthy treatment of the text in musical form. More still the score stands as one of the most brilliant compositions in contemporary history.

Since its debut the closest anyone has come to capturing the majesty and scope of the piece is the 1961 film. Garnering an astounding 11 Academy Awards, (including "Best Picture") the film is one of the few examples of stage genius being transferred from the east to west coast and celluloid. Unfortunately, most revivals of the work have not seen the fuller symphonic rendition of the score. The music tells as much of the tale as does the lyric and libretto.

Tennessee Repertory Theatre cures that in spades. Their presentation is theater perfection. Everything about the Rep's production speaks quality and attention to detail. The score is complete and masterfully handled by the Nashville Symphony, under the baton of Kenneth Schermerhorn. Bernstein's music is complex. While melodic its true beauty is in the complexity of the rhythm changes and more still the prosody of Sondheim's lyrics as set to those rhythms. The end result is difficult to master and best left to professionals. Here, it is nothing short of breathtaking. Had the acting been any less a match to the score I would have been happy just to close my eyes and absorb the story through the orchestra's presentation.

With regard to the lovers, David Grapes has cast this production to perfection. Mike Eldred's Tony is the best I've seen, bar none. His powerful tenor handles the score as well as it can be presented. Eldred embraces the music with an original style and understanding. His characterization is fresh and believable. If you think you've seen Tony presented every way he can be done, you need to see this production. Eldred gives a sensitive new age guy coupled with an Old World immigrant edge that makes Tony that much more endearing. "Tonight", "Something's Coming" and "Somewhere" left me breathless.

His counterpart, Betsi Morrison as Maria is every bit Eldred's equal in her portrayal. Morrison's full soprano floats on the Bernstein/Sondheim creations like an eagle on thermals. One moment you're laughing at the silliness and naivete that Maria displays in "I Feel Pretty" the next you are in tears at the idiocy of bigotry as she delivers "I Have a Love". The chorus is phenomenal but this is clearly Eldred and Morrison's show.

The mention of the chorus must include kudos to Lynne Kurdziel-Formato. Her choreography is an earnest tribute to Jerome Robbins

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