Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Review of West Side Story from Musical Theatre West


I have been a season subscriber to Musical Theatre West for a few years, and have almost always been pleased with their offerings. So, I was thrilled when I saw that the classic West Side Story was on the schedule for the 2015-2016 season. I saw it this past weekend and it was pretty good!

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking. And only two bathrooms...

West Side Story is one of the heavy hitters in the musical world, and the original 1957 Broadway show was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The original show was nominated for six Tony Awards and spawned the incredible successful 1961 movie of the same name (which won ten Academy Awards) starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer, and Russ Tamblyn (the latter two of Twin Peaks fame). This musical was so popular due to the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, not to mention the groundbreaking choreography by Jerome Robbins.

In case you have been hidden under a rock for the past 60 years, the plot is nearly a direct lift from Romeo and Juliet, with a cast of anxious punk kids, hot women, harried cops, and an old fat guy. There are themes of love, racial tension, and death, and they all come together in a wonderful fashion. The musical was a head of its time, and the racial themes must have been controversial at the time, though they are no less pertinent today.

West Side Story has such a long history that nearly everybody is familiar with it, so effectively producing it is no small chore. Musical Theatre West rose to the challenge, and put all of the pieces together in a convincing manner thanks to the decision to use the Robbins’ original choreography. I have a few problems with the lyrics and the story in general (Maria sure jumps in the sack with Tony pretty quick after he kills her brother), but that is the way it was written…

Visually, the sets were good, with cool central piece that served as the drug store, front stoop, and Maria’s house, and Jean Yves Tessier’s lighting was fantastic. The costumes were mostly period correct and the women’s hair looked great, but the guys’ hair did not even come close. Need to break out the Brylcreem, fellas.

The sound was very good. There was a 30-piece orchestra (very big for a MTW production) under the supervision of musical director David Lamoureaux. Unfortunately the musicians were uncredited in the program, and I have no idea if they were union or not. The sound engineering was pretty good, thought the vocals were sometimes drowned out by the orchestra.

So, the basic foundation was solid, and its success depends on the cast, and the performers (mostly non-equity) mostly delivered solid performances. Ashley Marie earned the role of Maria, her voice was beautiful, and she had good timing and could dance very well. Her love interest, Tony, was played by Michael Spaziani who is a wonderful dancer and looks good with his shirt off, but had a little too much trouble staying in tune when singing.

The other main characters, Riff and Bernardo, were portrayed by Tyler Matthew Burk and Cooper Howell. They both did well, and honestly I think either one of them would have done a better job than Spaziani did with the role of Tony. Lauren Boyd stole the show as Anita, as her acting, singing, and dancing skills gave her marvelous stage presence.

The ensemble turned in a solid performance, and they were very good dancers, and they made good use of Robbin’s choreography. Though I have seen this show a few times, I had not noticed before what an important role they play, as they do quite a bit of singing and dancing.

All of this came together well for solid (though not brilliant), performance. Musical Theatre West did well and West Side Story is a classic show with fine production values and a good cast. If you have the chance you should get out and see it before it is gone, but leave the little kids at home with a sitter. This is a long show and they will be squirming in their seats a long time before the final curtain falls (it clocks in at 2 ½ hours), not to mention a few decidedly mature scenes that you will have to awkwardly explain to them on the drive home.

If you want to see it at The Carpenter Center you had better hurry as West Side Story is closing on February. There are not many tickets left (this has been MTW’s all-time best seller), so grab them while you can. And, be sure to check out tickets for the last two shows of this season: Sister Act and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Also, now is the time to start thinking about next year’s season, which will include Memphis, Evita, Carousel, and Mary Poppins. You can’t beat the value!


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