by Nolan Boggess
Amidst months of controversy and questioning, Des Moines Playhouse's West Side Story succeeds to be one of the best and emotionally charged shows Des Moines has seen in a while. That is, if one can get past the apparent lack of Latin actors in the show.
Being from Des Moines, it was impossible to avoid reading about the problems this production has had. But, in case you haven't seen the articles and angry posts on Facebook, the show went on even though many members of the Latinx community protested the casting of white actors as the Puerto Rican Shark gang. One Latino cast member even quit the show. The justified protests forced The Playhouse to do a community talkback session and rethink what it means to do West Side Story in today's world. It all culminated in The Playhouse posting on Facebook that "...we sincerely apologize for missing an opportunity to conduct sufficient outreach to central Iowa's Latinx community in the casting of our upcoming production of West Side Story...We are deeply committed to the vision that stories about a specific ethnicity are best told by members of that ethnicity."
Regardless of the drama, this production of West Side Story is exceptional. From the moment the American Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks meet on stage, there is an electric charge in the air. The leaders of the two gangs Riff (Chris Bernard) and Bernardo (Andrew Rubenbauer) are fighting for ownership of the streets in the West Side of NYC in the 1950s, and neither is going to back down without a fight. That tension is cut when the audience meets Tony, (Rocco Contini) an ex member of the Jets who believes something is coming for him. That something being Maria (Kirsten Brown), Bernardo's sister. After the two meet, Anita (Tiffany Flory), Bernardo's girlfriend and Maria's best friend, is caught in between the star-crossed lovers. The story continues to follow the plot of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which doesn't end up well.
Director and choreographer Karla Kash easily transitions from heading The Playhouse's summer show Rock of Ages to this classic. The choreography, originally created by Jerome Robbins, is slick and gives audiences who have religiously watched the 1961 Academy Award winning film exactly what they want. There was a point in the iconic school dance scene where I got chills seeing the stage explode with energy and movement. Even better is the "Somewhere" dream ballet sequence in the second act where the urban set (with two clever twirling towers thanks to David Goldstein) vanishes leaving a bare stage. Previously rival gang members don neutral clothes and dance to soloist (and assistant choreographer) Erin Besser's beautiful and heartbreaking song about a world where both gangs can live in peace.
Kash's work is clearly supported with the talent that oozes from every lead and the strong music direction of Brenton Brown. Contini's warm voice brings a joy to Tony that opposes the hardened gang members while Brown's soprano notes soar giving Maria the purity that no other character can match. Flory's belts and passionate Anita make her "A Boy Like That" in the second act one of the night's finest moments. Other standouts include Marisa Spahn as the tough tomboy Anybodys, Erin Besser as the ditsy Rosalia, Bernard as the charming and intense Riff, and John Graham as the crooked Detective Schrank.
Yet, it is the ensemble and orchestra of the show that take West Side Story to new heights. The passion of the young acting community in Des Moines is apparent in the 25+ ensemble members mamboing and rumbling on stage. The ensemble provides the much needed energy and intensity for a longer show like West Side Story. This is also a show that requires intensive choreography and focus, which all easily bring on stage. Add a gorgeous Bernstein/Sondheim score, a great orchestra (conducted by Adam Yankowy) and West Side Story can't be beat.
Throughout the show, I couldn't seem to shake off the thought of how much better the show would be if it weren't filled with incorrectly placEd White actors and fake Puerto Rican accents. I believe The Playhouse has learned a valuable lesson, and commend the cast for pushing to create something beautiful in the face of the pre-show drama. If you were on the fence about seeing it, I urge you to still go. The hard work the cast and creative team have put in needs to be appreciated. Let's just hope that history doesn't repeat itself.
The Des Moines Playhouse presents West Side Story
October 7 - 30
Tickets and info: https://www.dmplayhouse.com/events/west-side-story#