`West Side Story' -- the second time around

``West Side Story'' is Leonard Bernstein's urban musical version of ``Romeo and Juliet,'' played from slum fire escapes instead of balconies. They brought the bright orange fire escapes to Kennedy Center, but they didn't bring the magic of this asphalt romance that's been an enduring musical hit since it premi`ered in 1957.

In Bernstein's musical the two star-crossed lovers are Maria and Tony, caught in gang wars between the Puerto Rican ``Sharks'' and the white ``Jets'' rather than a feud between the Montagues and Capulets. The production has some moments that soar, and it is a pleasant evening in the theater; if you've never seen the musical off the screen, this version is worth catching. But it is a production that crosses swords with itself. Because of the culture clash that is part of the plot, the casting of the youn g lovers, Maria (Katharine Buffaloe) and Tony (Rex Smith), is crucial.

Unfortunately, Katharine Buffaloe looks and sounds more like an East Side debutante than a West Side Puerto Rican girl, and her beautiful lyric soprano is operatic in style. Rex Smith, a hit rock singer who also starred in Joseph Papp's ``Pirates of Penzance,'' croons his numbers in a pop style that's at odds with hers. Smith looks the part: Blondly handsome, wired with energy, he has a fine voice and street-smarts charm. But his performance seems shallow, as though he were trying the role on and hadn't

yet made it his own. Most important, there is no spark between this Maria and this Tony, so that their love scenes and songs are accomplished but not quite convincing. The absence of a spark also robs the final tragic act of its impact as Tony dies, a victim of the gang wars, in Maria's arms.

It may be that the whole production simply needs more work, more rehearsals, more fine-tuning. Kennedy Center is the beginning of a national tour for this production, which goes on to Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. Of course, the ecstatic hit numbers, ``Tonight'' and ``Maria,'' with music by Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, are always a delight in themselves. But because of the unevenness of this ``West Side Story,'' other numbers like the peppery ``America'' sta nd out here in the hands of some extremely talented performers. They include Luis Perez as Maria's brother Bernardo, the fiery leader of the Sharks; Leilana Jones as Bernardo's sassy, sexy girl, Anita; and Kevin Neal McCready as the volatile Riff, the Jets leader.

The directing credit reads: ``Directing reproduced by Ruth Mitchell,'' and this may point to one of the problems. Ms. Mitchell should stand back and take a fresh look at this musical, which was originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with book by Arthur Laurent. It needs a crisper pace, more unity, more gusto and romance.

Even small changes would help. For instance, when Tony first sings ``Maria'' after the Jets and Sharks have a truce dance in the gym, the dancers are lighted too brightly as they drift offstage, leaving Smith stranded with a bare wall to sing to. Keeping them dancing, in shadow, would provide a rhythmic foil for his number. Ms. Mitchell's direction of the ``Tonight'' number, an intricate musical quadrille in which the rival Jets and Sharks perform on opposite sides of the stage while Maria and Tony sing

that yearning duet, is the real showstopper. It spotlights her potential as a director.

Tommy Abbott, who ``reproduced'' the original Robbins choreography, Peter Wolf, whose scenery was ``suggested'' by Oliver Smith's designs, and Stanley Simmons, whose costumes were ``based on'' Irene Sharaff's designs, have done capable but not inspired work. Musical director Milton Rosenstock, though, has come up with spirited performances. This is a production in which everyone works terribly hard. But that's not enough in a legendary musical like ``West Side Story.''

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