Following their multiple award-winning stagings of The Who’s Tommy, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, and Merrily We Roll Along (among others), The Chance Theater’s Oanh Nguyen and Kelly Todd have once again joined forces, this time to reinvent the Broadway classic West Side Story with equally spectacular results.
Unlike the musical’s recent Broadway revival, a brilliant recreation of the 1957 original with book writer Arthur Laurents directing and Joey McKneely replicating Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, The Chance Theater gives us a West Side Story that is fresh and new from the ground up, from the opening chords of composer Leonard Bernstein’s Jets vs. Sharks “Prologue.”
In less gifted hands than director Nguyen’s and choreographer Todd’s, any messing with perfection could be musical theater suicide. Fortunately, Nguyen has proven himself time and time again to be one of the Southland’s bona fide directorial geniuses, and Todd has received Best Choreography nominations from both the LADCC and the Ovations for her memorable work in Jerry Springer: The Opera and Hair. The result of the team’s latest inspired collaboration is a West Side Story that respects its source material (Laurents’ book and Bernstein’s and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s songs) yet re-imagines the Romeo and Juliet story as if it were a brand new show, which in its creative partnership’s hands, it quite often seems to be.
It helps a great deal that the Chance Theater stage is about the farthest thing imaginable from a Broadway-scale proscenium, seating only fifty or so and reconfigured for West Side Story to place the audience on opposite sides lengthwise. In such a small space, it would have been foolhardy if not downright impossible for Todd to recreate Jerome Robbins’ signature crouches and leaps. And wonder of wonders, her choreography proves every bit as exciting as its illustrious predecessor’s, particularly since Todd has her dozen and a half Jets and Sharks executing their dance moves literally within touching distance of the audience.
West Side Story’s opening “Prologue” is not the only musical number to blur the line between Todd’s dance and David McCormick’s fight choreography, as Jets and Sharks square off in a preview of the Act One closer, “The Rumble,” fists flying and legs kicking so in-your-face, you’d swear you were there smack dab in the middle of the mean streets of New York. “The Dance At The Gym” retains its script-dictated circle-within-a-circle setup, but soon morphs into Jet boys and Shark girls and Shark boys and Jet girls joined in a dance of both enmity and desire, in the middle of which Tony and Maria’s first sight of each other across the gym is as magical as it has ever been. “Cool” has Riff and the Jets—both male and female—expressing teen rage thought the medium of dance, with four banged-about straight-back metal chairs adding fury and noise to the mix. An exquisite, moving “Somewhere” dream ballet imagines a world in which barefoot Jets and Sharks execute graceful pas de deux in harmony and peace. Act Two’s aborted rape scene, another in which violence gets expressed in moves both realistic and dancelike, is more gut-wrenching than ever performed so close to the audience.
For some of these production numbers, Todd has gang members and their girlfriends actually making eye contact with front row audience members, as back-row patrons have Jets and Sharks virtually breathing down their necks from raised platforms behind. The cumulative effect is as thrilling as it gets, and even more so because there’s scarcely even a nod to Robbins in the whole, heady mix.
To bring West Side Story’s iconic characters to life, Nguyen has drawn from the crème-de-la-crème of Orange County talent, casting Tony, Maria, Bernardo, Anita, Riff, and Anybodys with Cal State Fullerton Theater or Musical Theater majors or recent grads, and as those who’ve read my reviews of CSUF productions must know by now, these are among the country’s finest emerging talents, and refreshingly close to the ages of the characters they play. Other pivotal characters, including Jet boys Action, A-rab, Baby John, and Diesel, and Shark girls Rosalia, Consuelo, and Francisca are cast with equally young and talented triple threats, as are the Shark boys and Jet girls.
A handsome, hunky Keaton Williams and a gorgeous, enchanting Gina Velez make magic as Tony and Maria, both vocally and in spoken scenes, a pair of born romantics so made for each other, we hope against hope that this time, at least, their nascent love will meet a different fate. Chelsea Baldree morphs miraculously from Spring Awakening’s virginal Wendla to the spitfire that is Anita to stunning effect. Gasper Spinosa’s charismatic Riff and Robert Wallace’s Latin heartthrob of a Bernardo are this West Side Story’s dynamic duo, and in Wallace’s case, it’s astonishing to realize that this is the same actor who played Scottish Ian just a few months ago in ROOMS: A Rock Romance.
As Action, A-Rab, Baby John, and Diesel, Brian Alexander, Eric Ronquillo, Eric Michael Parker, and Jackson Tobiska infuse their roles with teen testosterone and angst, and never more so than in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a showcase for these four talented triple-threats which Nguyen makes an expression of frustration and rage rather than the usual comic relief. Amanda Sylvia completes the gang as a memorably feisty Anybodys, the Jet wannabe whose gender keeps getting in the way of full gang inclusion.
Elena Murray (Rosalia), Rebecca Fondiler (Consuela), and Makenzie Gomez (Francisca) provide fiery, funny, fabulous support to Anita’s “America.” Israel Cortez makes the very most of his moments as Chino, handpicked by Bernardo and Anita to be Maria’s intended, and though his fellow Sharks—Anthony Obnial as Pepe, Alex Uriorstegui as Indio, and Danny Marin as Luis—have less to do than their bigger-roled Jet counterparts, they are no less talented, and the same can be said for the ravishing Jet girls—Kellie Spill as Velma, Dannielle Green as Graziella, Tasha Tormey as Minnie, and Nikki Miller as Clarice.
Adults Doc, Lieutenant Schrank, Officer Krupke, and Glad Hand are not only played to perfection by Frank Minano, Michael Grenie, Joe Buford, and Patrick Birman, they are given a major part in one of director Nguyen’s most revolutionarily reconceived key West Side Story scenes.
Music director Robyn Wallace deserves highest marks for re-orchestrating West Side Story’s original full orchestra arrangements for a mere six instruments, performed live by Wallace on keyboard, David Lee on guitar, Steven Wagner on drums/percussion, Aimee Gomez on violin, Jordan Ferrin on woodwinds, and Robert Todd., Jr. on trombone. Still, for this reviewer at least, this is one instance when big-orchestra prerecorded tracks would do better justice to Sondheim’s soaring melodies than a smaller group musicians playing live.
Sound designer Dave Mickey provides an expert mix of instruments and voices, and though actors are miked, the impression one gets is, refreshingly, of unamplified voices, particularly when individual performers are singing only inches away. Bradley Kaye’s ingenious scenic design has opposite ends of the Chance stage serving as key locales, including Doc’s drugstore and Anita’s balcony, with KC Wilkerson’s state-of-the-art LED lighting and video design one of the most dramatic and spectacular ever, and one that places you smack dab in the middle of the action. (Wilkerson’s lighting also keeps attention firmly on the performers and stage and not on the two rows of spectators seated opposite you.) Anthony Tran’s costumes are an evocation of time and place and expression of the characters who wear them. Christopher Booher has created some terrific hair and make-up designs.
Kari Hayter is assistant director/dramaturg. Courtny Greenough is stage manager. Other behind-the-scenes talents include Breanna Rae Murillo (assistant costume designer), Sophie Cripe (assistant dramaturg), Masako Tobaru (prop master), Teodora Ramos (master carpenter), Heather Dunlap (assistant stage manager/light board), and Bryan Williams (audio technician).
Since the announcement of the Chance Theater’s 2012 season, West Side Story has been this reviewer’s most eagerly awaited production, and as this review makes clear, the final product has exceeded even my highest expectations. Theatergoers are hereby advised to reserve their tickets asap, as this is sure to be a sell-out run. You may think you have seen West Side Story before, but you have never, ever seen this West Side Story, and if you’re a true lover of musical theater you must.
The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. Through August 19. Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Also Wednesdays August 8 and 15 at 8:00. Reservations: 714 777-3033