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Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event: West Side Story

Chita Rivera (the original Anita) and moderator Martin Charnin (the original Big Deal) as they appeared at “Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event: West Side Story” (Photo credit: Jeff Eason/WilsonModels, Inc.)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Hard to believe, but, yes, West Side Story, the seminal Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Jerome Robbins/Arthur Laurents musical is now sixty years old as of September 26th. Under the auspices of Dancers Over 40, Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event packed the St. Luke’s Theater with fans of the musical, many of whom actually saw the original production.

Hosted by internet celebrity, Matt Rodin, the event was moderated by original cast member (and Annie lyricist) Martin Charnin (Big Deal in WSS). The incredible panel consisted of Grover Dale (Snowboy), Marilyn D’Honau (Clarice), Carol Lawrence (Maria), Ronnie Lee (Nibbles), George Marcy (Pepe/Bernardo), Tony Mordente (A-Rab), Liane Plane (Marguerita), Chita Rivera (Anita), Jaime Sanchez (Chino) and David Winters (Baby John).

Each was asked about their first audition. Marilyn D’Honau couldn’t remember, although she clearly made an impression on Robbins who subsequently used her in Gypsy. Tony Mordente, just an acting hopeful, was working in a Times Square Howard Johnson’s when he heard that WSS was being assembled and he showed up with no professional experience and managed to impress the powers-that-be. Some flew in from the Coast or Las Vegas or were known by Robbins before hand, like Ronnie Lee who was in Peter Pan. All were reminded by Robbins before the opening night that they were “handpicked.”

The running theme of the evening was, of course, Jerome Robbins and how his creativity, cruelty and point of view molded the show. Some hated him (Ronnie Lee), some adored him (Carol Lawrence), but all recognized his genius.

Carol Lawrence (the original Maria) and Ronnie Lee (the original Nibbles) as they appeared at “Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event: West Side Story” (Photo credit: Jeff Eason/WilsonModels, Inc.)

It was also made quite clear that Peter Gennaro—“perfect buns!” according Chita Rivera—choreographed all the dance movements for the Sharks. They made gentle fun of Gennaro’s sweet speech defect and how he helped everyone survive Robbins’ tough love approach. (Robbins, for instance, insisted that the actors playing the Jets and the Sharks never socialize, although a devious Chita managed to romance and marry Jet, Tony Mordente!)

It was fascinating to see the dynamics of the interplay among these actors even after 60 years. Carol Lawrence seemed to dominate (even revealing that she was the highest paid cast member) while Ms. Rivera  spoke mostly about Gennaro after saying hello to her daughter Lisa Mordente who was in the audience. Liane Plane was mostly quiet, while Grover Dale went off on several non-WSS tangents.

They all did agree in the end that West Side Story was a turning point for each of them and that it still held important messages for today’s audiences.

Original cast member (Anxious), the late Gene Gavin, wrote an autobiography, Twinkle Toes – Tales of a Broadway Gypsy 1949-1969. His nephew, Richard Tuttle, read a fascinating excerpt from the book that described his WSS experiences. Gavin was particularly unhappy that Robbins seemed to barely notice him, after the two had had a shared experience dancing in Balanchine’s New York City Ballet.

Ronnie Lee (Nibbles), Jaime Sanchez (Chino), Chita Rivera (Anita), Tony Mordente(A-Rab) and Marilyn D’Honau (Clarice) as they appeared at “Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event: West Side Story” (Photo credit: Jeff Eason/WilsonModels, Inc.)

Upcoming musical star Jay Armstrong Johnson sang a stellar “Something’s Coming,” after Charnin alluded to how the song was mysteriously inserted into the show at a rehearsal. Curtis Reynolds accompanied. Reynolds also played for a special, close harmony arrangement by Ross Baum of “Somewhere” sung by Rodin, Sojourner Brown, Hannah Corneau and Amanda Savan that ended the program on a lyrical, but somber, note.

The show included a sneak preview—what Charnin called a “sizzle reel”—of an upcoming British West Side Story 60th Anniversary Documentary which included some historic views of New York City in the Fifties and reprises of a few of the stories related live by the panel members. Keep an eye open for this.

Dancers Over 40 is planning similar anniversary events, but it will be difficult to top Cool!. Thrilling is the only way to describe this event. For musical theater fans, it was earthshaking.

Cool! The 60th Anniversary and Reunion Event: West Side Story (September 27, 2017)

St. Luke’s Theater, 308 West 46th Street, in Manhattan

For more information: http://www.dancersover40.org

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (229 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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