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Review: West Side Story Plays it Cool

We can’t think of a musical that more theater people geek out about than West Side Story. It starts with the greatest love story of all time (Romeo & Juliet), adds in racial tension that was burgeoning in New York City in the 1950s, and then musicalizes it, complete with entire story sequences told by dance. Then of course consider that it was crafted by some of the best musical theater creators of all time (Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins), and how can it not be a smash hit?   

West Side Story Brings Serious Talent to Town

HE SAID: This one of the most spectacular Broadway touring productions I have seen in a long time, which is even more impressive considering there is very little spectacle in the whole show. Instead of big flashy sets, lighting, or special effects, the show really relies on story and performance to engage the audience and move them throughout the dynamic highs and lows of the entire piece – and boy, does this production deliver. From the first snaps in the opening number to curtain down, I was fully enthralled by every moment.

SHE SAID: I totally agree that this show requires a different kind of production value — performance value. The choreography and music is so demanding that you can’t get away with performers who are less than amazing. Sometimes (not always) touring casts seem like a bit of a compromise, but this cast was outstanding. The male ensemble members all have to be triple threats, and they really work their butts off the entire show. As I was watching it, I was amazed at how much of a classic this was — that there were performers 50 years ago who could execute this stuff, and also amazed that this show is done so frequently at the amateur level. It’s so freaking hard, and so good when it’s done well. I felt really lucky that such a wonderful production of it came into town.

Male Ensemble and Romantic Leads Nail Difficult Material

HE SAID: The cast is absolutely stellar! Everyone knows this is a dance heavy show (and if you didn’t, now you do). Right from the opening dance/fight number, the turns, leaps, kicks were so sharp, so powerful, and so precise it was exhilarating to think that we still had “The Dance at the Gym”, “America”, and “Cool” left to watch. All of the dancers are fantastic, but for some reason Clay Thomson as A-Rab really stood out for me. His moves are on point every time and he really brings a high level of performance into the dance steps to take those moments beyond dancing. I also noticed Drew Foster as Riff, the leader of the Jets, for his overall performance, especially the way he believably commands his gang, in spite of being smaller than some of his troops, by bringing a great level of charisma and power to the role.

SHE SAID: I noted that Casey Garvin as Diesel is especially impressive, because you don’t expect a guy with that much brawn to move well, but he is totally on top of it. The male ensemble also does a great job at singing while dancing — especially during all of the physical comedy in “Gee, Office Krupke,” they’re moving at a mile a minute and then keep singing at full voice. And at altitude! Well done, men. But Ross Lekites and Evy Ortiz as Tony and Maria are really the stand-out vocalists of the evening (as they should be). They both sound incredible. What is even more impressive was that they had really awesome chemistry. I think what helps is that Lekites is just a bit off of the normal Tony type — instead of being somewhat of a porcelain pretty-boy, he’s a youthful, playful spirit, that makes him seem almost awkward. Ortiz’s girlish energy is a great match for him, and you really believe that these were two souls who didn’t quite find kindred spirits in their own social group before they found each other. I was genuinely rooting for them. Sometimes romantic leads can seem generic and boring, and at worst it seems like the only thing they have in common is being unattainably attractive. Not so here — these two have a real connection that was really special to watch.

Classic Story Seems Fresh as Ever

HE SAID: The chemistry between Lekites and Ortiz is palpable. They joy they feel when with each other is so believable the audience really gets wrapped up in the strong love with them. It really is the crux of the entire show, so having that element so firmly in place is wonderful. On top of that both performers are perfect. Lekites’ performance of “Maria” is unreal. It must be so difficult to honestly vary each time he says “Maria,” and Lekites fills each one with a different meaning. His vocal range and control is stunning. Ortiz is equally out of this world, especially as the drama started to elevate in the second act.

SHE SAID: Michelle Aravena as Anita is also notable — her Anita has an awesome combination of experience, a little cynicism, a lot of spirit, and a lot of love. While we’re mentioning the Sharks, we should also mention the fact that this tour follows the recent Broadway revival in its use of Spanish for several of the Shark scenes and songs. I really enjoy this choice — I think it heightens the difference between the groups and reminds us that some of the barriers in society are still relevant. I will say though, that there is so much in Spanish that if you don’t speak it you have to let go understanding the literal meaning of the lines. You have to relax, and just try to extract the feeling of the scene — it’s pretty easy to do, but it’s not something that all audience members are used to doing.

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Take a Trip to the West Side

THEY SAID: If you have never seen the show and don’t know what to expect, then you are in for a breathtaking night at the theatre. West Side Story is one of the most prolific musicals ever written for a reason – great story, iconic music, and unparalleled dance sequences. If you have experience with this show and have high expectations, the truth is you won’t be let down. For traditionalists, it is still largely the same beautiful show that you know. The inclusion of Spanish doesn’t change any of the story at all, but adds an element of authenticity that might not have flown in the day the show was created. For those wondering if the show is too dated, you’ll probably appreciate the inclusion of Spanish and and some of the various other moments the production has tweaked throughout.  In a day where it seems like each season on Broadway has one show trying to have the next best spectacle, it’s simply mesmerizing to be witness such a masterful production of a timeless classic.

For more information on West Side Story, see the wikipedia article. Wets Side Story plays through Jan 1 at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.


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2 thoughts on “Review: West Side Story Plays it Cool

  1. The afternoon show we saw was not the best. The male lead was not on a par with the female lead in terms of singing and acting. The orchestra was pitchy. The Jets dancing was mediocre compared to the Sharks who seemed to be tighter and better staged. The overall performance was sloppy and it was apparent that the company needs more time to prepare or needs to take the production more seriously. Overall it was a mediocre performance. Save your money for a better show and production.

    Posted by Edward | December 27, 2011, 9:53 pm
  2. Although I thought the singing and dancing was great, I did not appreciate the raunchiness of the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number. That number was meant to be about the many different reasons for delinquency, not just sexual activity, etc.

    Posted by KKC | December 29, 2011, 4:33 pm

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