by Don Grigware
West Side Story/book by Arthur Laurents/music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim/directed by Larry Raben/choreographed by Karl Warden/music director: Jeff Rizzo/ 5 Star Theatricals at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Fred Kavli Theatre/ through August 4 only
Ask actors/actresses to name their favorite Broadway musical of all time and they most often concur, West Side Story. Why? It has phenomenal music by Leonard Bernstein, with concise poetic lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a tight and gripping book by Arthur Laurents ... and ... brilliant choreography established in 1957 by Jerome Robbins. It is one of the most powerful love stories ever penned, next to Romeo and Juliet. With all these elements complementing one another, from the first downbeat of the orchestra and the appearance of the Jets creeping in one by one on a half-lit stage, the show pulls you in and doesn't let go for its almost three hours ... and its message and images of love linger long after.
I think it important to mention Arthur Laurents' revival in 2009 because it changed the face of the show. It was far more realistic. First, the score was sung with some lyrics in English and some in Spanish. Also, more Spanish was spoken within the dialogue of the scenes. Sondheim gave his approval for this to draw contemporary Hispanic audiences to the show, and it makes sense, for Puerto Ricans arriving in the US still spoke Spanish. Also, the ending of this revival is less theatrical, as the opposing gangs do not carry Tony's body off. It would never be allowed in a modern CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). Without that overpowering piece of staging to conclude, it is left solely to the power of Maria's riveting speech against violence to encourage hope for any possible reconciliation between the warring gangs. Many argued against this version particularly because the ending showing hope for the future in a total sense of community was dimmed.
Thankfully the current production from 5 Star Theatricals is the original, traditional staging with most of the theatrical ending in tact. Under the superior direction of Larry Raben and with fantastic choreography from Karl Warden, this production of the show is a gem. It is such a joy to see such young triple threats throughout the ensemble, in which there are no weak links. If these guys aren't dancer dancers, they sure could fool me with their athletic leaps and bounds.
Giselle Torres and Brandon Keith Rogers as Maria and Tony bring magic to the fore with their burning passion and wonderful chemistry together. Torres is lovely to look at and has a beautiful vocal instrument; Rogers has a totally natural delivery and an ultra powerful singing voice. Lauren Louis makes Anita earthy and outspoken yet somewhat tolerant and caring. Aleks Pevec makes a strong and sturdy leader out of Riff, and Patrick Ortiz is tough as Bernardo. All the Sharks and Jets are physically and emotionally in gere, as are the adults: Ivan Thompson a standout as Doc, Skip Pipo holding his ground as Lt. Schrank and especially funny as the swishy Gladhand at the gym dance. All the lady friends of the opposing gangs are also top notch. A shout out to Antonia Vivino as Anybodys, a great tomboy role that frequently goes without mention.
Warden's choreography, particularly the dance mix in the gymnasium and the rumble are executed with electricity. The ballet "Somewhere" in Act Two with the youth ensemble is oh so moving and heartbreaking to behold. Scenic design, uncredited, perhaps a touring set, is simple and functional, and Kathryn Poppen''s 50s costumes are period appropriate. Jose Santiago's fine lighting design and Jonathan Burke's sound design add so much vibrancy to this production as well.
I agree with actors who choose this musical as their favorite. Leonard Bernstein's riveting music and Stephen Sondheim's unparalleled lyrics make the score the best in musical theatre history. I have seen the show so many times I have stopped counting. And I could see it again. This is a highly crafted representation for both fans of the stage version and for those first-timers, familiar only with the ten time Academy Award-winning 1961 film. It pushes 5 Star Theatricals to the top rung of the totem pole. Put this on your must-see list with only one more weekend of performances!