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In the past decade, out director/choreographer Joey McKneely has been the go-to guy when it comes to mounting prominent overseas revivals of the landmark 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story.

McKneely not only directed and recreated Jerome Robbins' iconic West Side Story choreography for the show's 50th-anniversary international tour, but he also staged the musical's acclaimed 2000 debut at Italy's most prominent opera house, La Scala in Milan.

So when McKneely was asked to just recreate Robbins choreography for the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story directed by the original book writer Arthur Laurents, he admitted to feeling humbled by the demotion.

"Absolutely," McKneely said with a laugh during a telephone interview from an upstate country house in Patterson, N.Y. "But when you look back, the original librettist Arthur Laurents is directing, so how could I not be in the room with him? I took the opportunity to absorb all of his history with the show. I mean, he created these characters so that alone was just an opportunity I couldn't miss."

Chicago audiences get a chance to see McKneely's restaging of Robbins' choreography for West Side Story firsthand now that the national tour of the Broadway revival is playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Aug. 14. Laurents' revival assistant David Saint is the official director for the tour, which launched last year in Detroit.

McKneely considers himself extremely privileged to have been able to work with Laurents before he passed away in May this year at 93. However, McKneely has been able to work with a number of Broadway theater legends throughout his career as a performer, choreographer and director.McKneely's first Broadway credit saw him on roller skates in 1987 in the ensemble of Andrew Lloyd Webber's fantasy train musical Starlight Express directed by Trevor Nunn. His next two Broadway credits were notorious flops: the musical Roza directed by Harold Prince and Carrie (a 1988 musical based upon Stephen King's novel).

"You really don't know that you're in a bomb," McKneely said about Carrie. "It wasn't until we got it in front of an audience and hearing the reaction-it was very bizarre because there were some riveting moments and some that were absolutely absurd. I think those kinds of experiences have taught me more about theater than actually the big hits. You don't always know why something is a hit, but you definitely know it when it's a flop."

Most crucial to McKneely's future path as a choreographer came when he was cast in the ensemble for the 1989 revue Jerome Robbins' Broadway in which Robbins recreated many of his legendary stage numbers from such shows as On the Town, The King and I, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof.

"The most fascinating thing was just watching him. I was so young-I was just 21-I was like a sponge," McKneely said about working with Robbins. "I would watch him and process from the early stages of just throwing [the choreography] on anybody and picking dancers and why he chose his dancers and moved numbers around to understand the energy and arc of a production."

McKneely's first opportunity to do musical staging on Broadway came with the hit 1995 revue Smokey Joe's Café. But McKneely's choreographic breakthrough came with his Tony Award-nominated work on the 1997 Cy Coleman musical The Life about Times Square prostitutes circa 1980. Many a showtune reveler at Sidetrack in Chicago or Club Splash in New York has been amazed by McKneely's choreography for the defiant women's number "My Body" preserved on the broadcast of the 1997 Tony Awards.

"It's actually one of my proudest moments that it still lives on," McKneely said about "My Body" in "The Life." "People call that out and when they know that I've done that they go, 'Oh my God!' I'm so happy about that."

McKneely also had brushes with Hollywood royalty on Broadway. He appeared in the 1994 Broadway revival of She Loves Me choreographed by future Academy Award-nominated director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) and McKneely choreographed star Hugh Jackman in the 2003 musical The Boy From Oz about the life of Australian gay song and dance man Peter Allen.

"[Jackman] was wonderful to work with," McKneely said. "It was a joy just to teach Hugh to dance."

Currently McKneely has plans to direct and choreograph a new original musical called Josephine based upon the life of 1920s Paris entertainer Josephine Baker. So far McKneely says pop star Deborah Cox is attached to the show, which he hopes to have on Broadway by next spring.

However, in the meantime, McKneely is happy to have audiences see his restaged work of Jerome Robbins' dances in West Side Story on tour.

McKneely said he would never attempt to create his own choreography for the show because "it would be like rewriting an author's book or a composer's score. The choreography is justly one of the four pillars of the show and should not be changed because it's iconic-it is the show. I don't think (anyone re-choreographing West Side Story) can live up to Jerome Robbins, so why do it?"

West Side Story continues at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, through Aug. 14. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Tickets are $32-$95; call 312-775-2000 or visit http:// www.broadwayinchicago.com .

 

 

 



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