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Theatre Review: 'West Side Story'

Weekend!Arts: PCS scores with amor at the Armory
by: ©2006 OWEN CAREY, Riff (Tony Clarno, third from right) gives the Jets a lesson in being “Cool” in “West Side Story,” offering a time capsule of hepcat ways.

On the eve of a showdown with a rival gang, street-smart Jets leader Riff tries to steady his boys with a jazzy proto-rap called 'Cool,' answering everyone who doubted the enduring power of the musical 'West Side Story.'

The Sondheim/Bernstein/Robbins classic, which Portland Center Stage shined up to inaugurate its new Gerding Theater at the Armory last Friday, works just fine almost half a century after it exploded onto the American theater scene.

At the Gerding, it looks great, it sounds great and its heart still beats powerfully as it nears 50. A Romeo and Juliet update that pits the power of love against the fear of change, the story remains a vibrant piece of entertainment.

But it also has matured into something else, a fact that never emerges more clearly than amid the finger-snapping, hepcat expressiveness of 'Cool.' Done right, 'West Side Story' isn't dated; it's a rich historical document.

From the opening moments, when Tony Clarno's Riff hikes himself up a towering, block-letter show logo and pauses atop to light a smoke, we get an idea of both the sass and the athleticism director Chris Coleman's production has in store. And it doesn't disappoint.

His mostly New York-based cast brings first-rate skill and energy in support of its leads. Anderson Davis seems a bit blond and fresh-scrubbed for an ex-gang leader like Tony and Carey Brown's Maria isn't a classic beauty, but both actors sing beautifully and invest the pairing with convincing emotion.

Coleman's choice to stage this song-filled gem, questioned by some, turned out to be perfect. With his opening-night audience skewing strongly toward the big-dollar types who supported Center Stage's move to the Pearl, it seems fitting that the stage would hold something equally august, yet daring.

The dazzlingly innovative new venue has some surprising company on the cutting edge, a sturdy street blade still plenty sharp after all these years.

- Eric Bartels

7:30 p.m. FRIDAY, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. SATURDAY, 2 p.m. SUNDAY, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, noon and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, through Nov. 12 (some showtimes vary, check Web site), Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, www.pcs.org, $18.50-$61.50