Nothing New in ‘West Side’

Courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts

We all know the story: a forbidden love between two teenagers of warring families. Made famous by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” this basic plot has been an integral part of Western society: it has been represented in a plethora of manners, from movies to books and even a Broadway show.

As a huge fan of Broadway, I was thrilled when I heard that the National Tour Cast of “West Side Story” was going to be performing at the Sergestrom Center of the Arts in Costa Mesa. With my student rush ticket in one hand and my playbill in the other, I could barely contain my rapidly beating heart to finally see this classic story on stage.

Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story” places the two “star-cross’d lovers” not in fair Verona, Italy, but in 1950s New York City. In this adaption, the original disputing Montague and Capulet families are now two gangs of different ethnicities: the white American “Jets” and the Puerto Rican migrants “Sharks.” Since “West Side Story’s” initial release in 1957, it has experienced several renditions, including six U.S. revivals and three in the U.K.

How, then, could the cast of every new production separate itself from its predecessors and establish itself successfully in musical theatre history? Well, unfortunately, the National Tour Cast of “West Side Story” could not find an answer to this question, as the show’s performance was only slightly above average.

Even though it is quite difficult to perform a timeless show; however, it does not give an excuse for the performance to be merely passable. The show was brought down by leads’ singing voices.

Tony, played by Kyle Harris, possessed a very unusual voice, sounding closer to an older woman suffering from extreme anxiety rather than a young love-struck lad. At first, I thought his vibrato and overuse of vocal dynamics were products of nerves, but as they continued to persist through the entirety of the show, I realized he was trained in an extremely odd manner. I felt that vocally he was inappropriately cast, as his voice was distracting throughout most of the show.

The character of Maria, played by Ali Ewoldt, possessed much better vocals than her counterpart. However, I felt that she was not as exceptional as she could have been. Her performance reminded me of a better-than-average high school show in which the characters are cast mainly for their appearance and ability to carry a tune. Ewoldt was pleasant, but not at all memorable.

One of the most important aspects of “West Side Story” is the choreography. Unfortunately, the National Tour Cast of the 2009 revival fell flat in this category as well. One of my favorite numbers to watch is “Dance at the Gym,” the scene in which Tony and Maria see each other for the very first time. This number should be innovative with choreography and dramatic with its choices.

However, the scene left me feeling very unsatisfied. The moves were not sharp and the dances not terribly interesting. Even the staging didn’t use the set to its full advantage, but rather separated the cast into their respective groups. I wanted this number to surprise and excite me, but instead it left me disappointed and unsatisfied.

Luckily, there were a few bright spots to this production. In fact, some of the standout performances of show were from those who did not speak at all. Well, they wouldn’t be able to speak: I am referring to the costumes and set design.

The costumes worn by the cast were wonderfully vibrant and complementing. Colors such golden yellows and deep purples showed the contrasts between the warring gangs, bringing a visual reinforcement to the dominant schism in the performance.

The sets were also a plus, as they showed ingenuity in their design. Built using an artistic style that adds dimension within a picture — also known as forced perspective, the New York City streets and monuments were presented to the audience not as simply backdrops, but as active participants that were able to display as much importance as the characters. This successfully drew the audience further into the story and created a solid connection between them, which unfortunately the actors could not.

I really wanted this show to be better than it was. As an integral part of American theatre, “West Side Story” represents the classic era of musicals that were the products of several theatre legends, including lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins.

However, after viewing this particular production, I strongly believe that the National Tour Cast did not do “West Side Story” the justice it deserved, but instead portrayed how the standards for musical theatre have declined to a solidly mediocre state.

Rating: 2.5/5 Stars