On the Waterfront | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

On the Waterfront 

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ON THE WATERFRONT, American Blues Theatre. It might seem unfair to compare American Blues Theatre's production of On the Waterfront with the classic 1954 film. How could James Leaming hope to escape the formidable shadow of Marlon Brando? How could the mob boss be any more terrifyingly sleazy than Lee J. Cobb? Joe Cerqua's moody back-alley jazz score is successfully sinister, but how could it compete with Leonard Bernstein's music for the movie?

Amazingly, Leaming succeeds in making the dockworker Malloy his own, developing a complexly sympathetic portrait of the down-and-out ex-prizefighter who forsakes loyalties and risks everything for the woman he loves and the rights of his fellow workers. The rest of ABT's production, however, falls far short of the mark. Though it's adequately performed and certainly watchable, it lacks the raw, gripping emotion of the film and the power of great theater.

Budd Schulberg, who wrote the original screenplay, updated it in 1992 with Stan Silverman, adding the curse words that the film board would have censored. But the 50s tough-guy patter that remains feels stiff and fake. When Malloy falls in love with the schoolmarmish Edie, who tries in vain to resist his animal charm, their dated interactions are all Hollywood cheese. And Schulberg's new, more pessimistic ending, though not unrealistic, fails to give the work the kind of meaning the movie has. Still, this On the Waterfront is not completely uninspirational. It inspired me to make a special stop on my way home, but unfortunately someone had already checked out Blockbuster's last copy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Russell McGonagle.

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