by Jay Irwin
I used to hate Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim's "West Side Story". My only exposure was the movie and I found the story flat and unconvincing. I mean, an entire song just repeating her name? Geeze, learn how to write a lyric. But then a touring production came through town and they got it. They understood what they were singing about and knew how to convey it. And then I got it too. He only needs the one word because it's all he wants to hear. ...And I fell in love with the show but only when it's done well. Since then I've seen many productions of varying levels of quality. Now comes the current production from the 5th Avenue Theatre and Spectrum Dance Theatre and while it has some moments and some good dance sequences thanks to choreographer Bob Richards who did his darnedest to reproduce the original Jerome Robbins choreography, it lacks the ability to convey the story and the love thanks to some lackluster lead performances and staging and intent from director Bill Berry that just didn't get it.
Now before this week I would say that there's no need to give a synopsis of the show. It's a classic and has been around forever. But I've heard from far too many people lately sharing how some of the younger folks in their circle of friends or offices had no idea what it's all about, which baffles me but here we go, kids. It's "Romeo + Juliet" set in the 50's. But instead of the Montagues and the Capulets fighting it's the white teens in a neighborhood against the incoming Puerto Ricans. And Romeo is now Tony (William Branner) who was a former leader of a gang called the Jets, though now he's cleaning up is act, and Juliet is Maria (Rebbekah Vega-Romero) and the sister of Bernardo (Alexander Gil Cruz), the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. There's a rumble and some deaths and it all ends about as happy as the original Shakespeare.
But let's discuss the Shakespeare of it all. Just like any Shakespearean show (or really any show, but I've tended to notice it more in Shakespeare) if you're just saying the pretty words and not conveying the intent behind them, it doesn't work. And here too, if you're just signing the pretty songs and dancing about the stage without that underlying intent, the show falls flat and that's what we ran into. The whole thing was treated like a cartoon with broad representations of the characters instead of playing real people. And broad, cartoon love doesn't elicit emotions (at least not for me). It felt like Berry was more interested in painting pretty pictures and telling the audience when and how to feel than telling a story and letting the feelings come naturally. Case in point in the Act Two dream ballet, "Somewhere" which is an ode to cultural harmony as well as the lovers pining for a way to be together, "Somewhere a place for us", he staged Tony and Maria singing the song on a catwalk above the ensemble looking down at them, and only standing near each other. It was more like they were addressing protestors when they should have been gazing into each other's eyes.
Richard's choreography works for the most part, although some like Vega-Romero weren't up to the task and just looked awkward. But when we had a cadre of good dancers and the cartoony nature of the tone fit the number, like in "Gee, Officer Krupke", the number soars. But those moments were too few and far between.
The ensemble too is hit and miss. Branner has an insane voice and fits the dreamy boy next door quite well, and his indications of his uncontrollable love were cute but again, a bit cartoony. Vega-Romero just doesn't work in the role. Nice voice but isn't able to sustain the power, awkward dancer, and I got no chemistry or feelings of love from her. Danielle Marie Gonzalez probably manages the most human and honest moments of the show. She sells "America" beautifully and her scene with the Jets at the end was harrowing. The remaining ensemble sang and danced quite well but fell into that cartoon trap. Just because we're playing people from another era doesn't mean we need to mock them. Yes, they talked like that but not as over the top.
Sure, the opening night audience seemed to love their time there, but I fear the 5th Avenue audience has become complacent and used to mediocrity and Seattle deserves better. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "West Side Story" a mediocre MEH+. A bit of advice, don't put on a show, tell a story, the show will come.
"West Side Story" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 23rd. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.