For certain shows there's really nothing like a big, fully realized production complete with all the professional singers and dancers that only Broadway can provide. "West Side Story" is definitely one of those shows with its killer Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim songs and Jerome Robbins choreography; usually only professionals can cut it. And although the current touring production at the Paramount is lacking a bit of the heart and with one almost unforgivable technical gaff, it's definitely got the professionals to being it to life.
It's still the same old "Romeo and Juliet" star-crossed lovers story but with a bit of an update. Riff is the leader of the Jets, the white gang in town. Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang. They don't get along. Tony, the former leader of the Jets, meets Maria, Bernardo's sister. They really get along! But the two are from different worlds and those worlds are thrown into chaos when the two try to get together. And of course, what happens? Dance fights. If you're a fan of musical theater, you know it. But they've tweaked it a bit as they've translated portions of some of the songs into Spanish. I assume to lend a bit more authenticity and realism to this classic. But other than that, not much has changed.
So how did this production lose its heart? Well, let me preface this with the disclaimer that I saw a production of this several years ago that will always be a shining gem in my mind. There was nothing different about it. It was just a touring production. But the cast inhabited it with so much heart and talent that I still remember it fondly. So it's doubtful that any production could compare. And while the dancing and singing here were flawless, I found it to be a little too flawless. It was so very polished that I felt it lacked a bit of the danger and stakes the story can have. That coupled with the balcony set piece noisily lurching into place as Tony finished singing "Maria" and the show left me wanting for a bit more.
Ross Lekites is wonderful as the love struck Tony. With a gorgeous voice he completely sells his love for this girl. Evy Ortiz as Maria I felt could have committed more to the passion. Her voice is stunning but I just didn't quite buy her connection with Tony. German Santiago and Drew Foster as the rival gang leaders Bernardo and Riff execute their tasks well. They're tough, proud and amazing dancers. But again, I just didn't quite get the gravitas of the situation from them.
But there were two amazing standouts from the production. Michelle Aravena as Anita completely nailed each and every moment. From her light and frothy "America" to her heart breaking attack and betrayal, she was completely invested. And oddly enough the other stand out was someone with possibly the smallest role in the show. Stephen DeRosa as the dance chaperone Glad Hand practically stole the show with his hilarious fidgety ways and brilliant comic timing. Kudos to him for taking a small role and running with it.
So yes, the dance sequences, fantastic, incredible, and astounding. The voices, glorious and stunning. The rest … meh. But then, that could just be me trying to compare it to my astonishing memory from so many years ago. So if you've never seen a professional production (and you should), this one should fill the bill perfectly. But if you have a gem of a memory of it, you may want to leave it alone.
"West Side Story" plays at the Paramount Theatre through January 15th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.stgpresents.org.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg