Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Trilling Along with Natalie, Rita and the Gang

Just got back from traversing to the Bay Area, wherein I had an absolute blast seeing (twice) the "Sing-A-Long" West Side Story at the Castro Theater. This is the first time I've had the pleasure of attending one of these Castro 'special events'; you really haven't lived until you've sat in an audience of predominantly gay patrons wailing along to "America" and "I Feel Pretty" - I definitely felt at home as I limbered up my vocal chords and joined in the festivities. Party bags were handed out to help get people spirit of things, so, among other things, bubbles were blown during "One Hand, One Heart," miniature flags waved during "America," tiny mirrors held up during "Pretty," and party poppers were heard during the final shooting.

Viewed 'straight', with none of the above chasers, the film doesn't kill em' like it did in 1961- the 'hip' jargon, sometimes deliberately stylized choreography, and those Tony/Maria love scenes aren't timeless, and often evoke the wrong kind of laughter. There reportedly was tension during filming between directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins; this rift possibly accounts for the unbalanced tone of the film- care and attention are lavished on the musical numbers ("Cool" and, of course, "America" hold up especially well), while the dramatic passages often come across as stiff and, in visual terms, stagnant. Still, the film is usually watchable, and the wonderful Bernstein/Sondheim score remains virtually intact for the film, with the "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" numbers wisely being switched from their pre and post-rumble placements in the original stage version. Although attractive leads Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood are almost totally out of their element as Tony and Maria, I've always thought Wood redeems herself with some remarkable emoting towards the end of the film, particularly in the powerful closing scene (if there's one scene any "Maria" really needs to nail it's this one, and Wood couldn't be better as she grieves over Tony, then screams "Don't you touch him!!"). She's equally convincing reacting to Chino's news regarding the dire consequences of the rumble, then confronting Tony ("Killer Killer!!"), as she sobs hysterically before collapsing in his arms.

However, without the performances of George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, the film probably would have little resonance with viewers today. From their first moments onscreen, it's clear who the true stars of this Story are. It's hard to fathom how Chakiris was never able to capitalize on his success here, as his Bernardo forcefully commands the screen with a quite grace- he's sexy, dangerous, and very classy. Then there's Moreno's peerless work as Anita. In her hands, the role is completely believable, whether Anita's good-naturedly chastising Maria in their first scene, cutting up with Bernardo as she cha-cha-chas her way through the "Mambo" and "America" numbers, or lashing out at the Jets in her final, vivid Story moment. Few performers have managed to ease their way from comedy (or, in this case, musical comedy) to drama with the artful skill Moreno displays in Story, and no one at the screenings laughed at her Anita, only with her during the character's lighter moments- when the role becomes tragic, the theater was silent as we worried regarding Anita's fate; this incredible audience rapport is a tribute to Moreno's talent and to her complete identification with the part. Rita Moreno loves Anita, and we love her as Anita. Among the ten Oscars the film garnered, today the two won by Charikis and Moreno seem the most justifiably warranted.

The Castro is planning a couple more "Sing-A-Longs" in the near future: The Sound of Music in November, and Grease in December. I never thought I'd watch Music again in this lifetime, but the theater's done this before with great success, and I suddenly find viewing Music under these circumstances a "can't miss" event. I'm more partial to Grease, so I'm hoping to attend both films and lighten up the dreary winter months.


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