BWW Review: Feeling Pretty at Orlando Shakes' WEST SIDE STORY
by Kimberly Moy
It's a Broadway classic with show tunes that have permeated popular culture. This year Orlando Shakes brings WEST SIDE STORY to its mainstage to kick off its 28th season. With everything that Orlando has endured this Summer, WEST SIDE STORY has never been more relevant. At the start of the show, two cast members come out, one speaking in English, the other in Spanish to dedicated the performance to one of the 49 victims of the Pulse tragedy. It is a touching tribute that fits this story well.
From the very start the music is instantly recognizable. I didn't realize that Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY. Though one of his earlier works, Sondheim's poetic style shines throughout every song. If it has been some time since you've seen the show you may be surprised by the racial divide and the gang violence. Seeing the show as an adult, it makes sense and translates well to modern times. Instead of Puerto Ricans, you can switch out any other ethnicity who faces difficulty and you see why the plot continues to resonate.
Then there are the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. Maria is from Puerto Rico and fairly new to the block. Her innocence and unwillingness to see the bad in people leads her to a whirlwind relationship with Tony from the Jets. The length of time between the start of the show to the end is barely three days, yet the pair manage to fall madly in love despite the divide between their groups.
Earlier this year, staff from Orlando Shakes did casting calls in Orlando and New York City. Their efforts were well worth it, as the leads were perfectly cast. Absolute stand out performance goes to Karli DiNardo as Anita. Dinardo has it all in terms of singing, acting, and owning the high energy dance numbers. As Anita, Dinardo is sassy, yet sympathetic. She is the key that adds layers of authenticity to the production. "America" was my absolute favorite scene. Everything from the choreography to the energy and delivery was exactly as it should be.
Carly Evans as Maria is sweet and easily likeable. I appreciate that Evans kept her Puerto Rican accent even when singing. It made the transitions feel very natural and kept the relationship between Maria and Tony believable. Evans paired well opposite the starry eyed, Marc Koeck as Tony. These two did WEST SIDE STORY's duets justice from the very first moments alone in "Balcony Scene" (a/k/a "Tonight") to the Finale.
There is a very beautiful ballet dream sequence in Act 2. The Entire company quick changes into all white. At one point, in the choreography the Entire company stops, takes a breath in and spreads their arms like they are flying. This brief moment brought me back to the show's dedication and those lives lost at Pulse. Whether it was meant to or not, that moment of breath with the lyrics of "Somewhere" sung in the background brought me peace and hope. I hope that others who watch this scene feel the same.
WEST SIDE STORY is a favorite not only because of the music, but it is a great dance show The ensemble's dancing was strong, but there just a slight mismatch in sharpness between the Sharks and the Jets. Every cast member has the technical skill, but I believe the formations could have been tighter. In particular the Rumble scene lost its momentum early. The build up was just not there as the dancers (though skillfully) flung themselves across the stage "fighting" each other.
The set is a realistic city block that gives off a grungy urban feel. The live band is visible on-stage and sits on the second story. My favorite piece was "under the bridge," which is a seemingly massive structure that lowers down when needed. As the light shines through the bridge piece, it creates the nice onstage contrasts of light and dark.
Overall, this is a solid performance of WEST SIDE STORY. The casting is spot on and so is the music. It is a brilliant choice for Orlando Shakes' mainstage musical. I cannot wait to see what they pick next season.
Directed by Jim Helsinger with musical direction by Steve Mackinnon, WEST SIDE STORY runs now through October 9th. Due to some of the themes of the show and some violence it is recommended for viewers 13 years or older. For tickets and more information visit Orlando Shakes awesome re-designed website www.orlandoshakes.org.