BWW Review: Beautifully Sung WEST SIDE STORY
WEST SIDE STORY is historically one of the most important of American musicals, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Its conception as a heavy dance piece came from original choreographer and director Jerome Robbins and is loosely based on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The show also marked Sondheim's Broadway debut. With its dark subject matter, focusing on social problems, and sophisticated score, the show was a turning point in American Musical Theatre. Bernstein's score includes "Something's Coming", "Maria", "Somewhere", "Tonight", "I Feel Pretty", and "One Hand, One Heart", all of which have become part of the Great American Songbook. The original production was nominated for six Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1957. It was turned into a film in 1961, ultimately winning ten Oscars, including Best Picture.
Set in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City in the mid-1950s, (the early 1960s cleared much of the neighborhood for what would become Lincoln Center) it tells the story of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, teenage street gangs of differing ethnic backgrounds. The Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a white gang. Tony (Matt Buzonas), a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang leader, Riff (Scott Graham), falls in love with Maria (Sabrina Mari Uriegas), the sister of Bernardo (Ismael Soto III), the leader of the Sharks. Maria works in a dress shop with Anita (Leslie Gaar), Bernardo's girlfriend. Maria has just arrived in America for her arranged marriage to Chino (Rafael De La Cruz), a friend of Bernardo's. Maria confides in Anita, telling her she is not in love with Chino. Anita is making a dress for her to wear to the dance at the gym. It is at that dance where Tony and Maria meet and everyone's troubles begin.
What makes WEST SIDE STORY so exciting is how it marries dance and emotion. The highly athletic dances come from a place of frustration, anger and hormonal rage. The dances are both lyrical and athletic. They are heightened poetry. While the current production at the Georgetown Palace hits all the right notes in a visually beautiful production, it is lacking in the key area of that explosive rage. It all seems slightly emotionless.
While director Ron Watson has done a nice job with the staging of the piece here and Jesee Smart has done a good job with creating a dance style that echoes Jerome Robbins' original choreography, there doesn't seem to be any urgency here. The dances, especially for the Jets and Sharks should explode with a sense of rage, anger and emotion. Here, they seem more workman like. There is also a lack of precision. Many times we just have arms flailing around with no unison...or someone who completes their piece of a synchronized group move several beats behind everyone else. This is especially apparent in the male ensemble.
Technically, the show is quite good. Music Director Rose Yurcina gets great vocals from the ensemble. Scenic Artist Rebecca Barbour and Set Designers Ron Watson, Jesee Smart and Michael Davis have created a cityscape of a set that works very well, especially the raked stage. The raked stage, however, could use some sound dampening, as often in the more energetic numbers all you can hear are the heavy thudding of feet which get amplified by the miking of the cast. The costuming by Ramona Haas of A Cut Above is quite nice with some very lovely period touches, especially in the female costumes. Mick Gormley's lighting design is excellent at setting mood.
There are also some very good performances here, deserving of individual mention. Sabrina Mari Uriegas is lovely as Maria with a beautifully lyrical crystalline voice that hits every difficult note in this role with ease. She also imbues the role with the right sense of innocence. Ismael Soto III is splendid as Bernardo, a study in brooding angry sensuality. Emily Perzan delivers a sweet and daffy Rosalia that is both charming and endearing. Buddy Novak is excellent as Action, the sole performance among the gang members that felt like his dance moments were exploding from an anger deep inside him. He also delivers a wonderful "Gee, Officer Krupke", that is a highlight of the evening. Samantha Watson sings a wonderful "Somewhere" as well as portraying a goofy, funny Consuela.
While Matt Buzonas managed to convey Tony's charm and can certainly sing the role, he seemed to be missing that essential sense of innocence. There was no wonderment or sense of love at first sight. The audience has to believe that he experiences that rare and wondrous joy. Scott Graham does a nice job with Riff, but, again, there didn't seem to be any sense of the primal bond between him and Tony. The night I attended Leslie Gaar as Anita seemed to be having vocal problems. She does a solid job, but again, I would have liked to see the anger that underlies "A Boy Like That".
Two performances I found problematic: Dana Barnes as Schrank mostly screamed his lines, making him unintelligible more than once. Likewise, JaHari Carter as Anybodys suffered from such diction problems the night that I attended that I was unable to understand anything she said.
WEST SIDE STORY is not an easy show to pull off. It has multiple layers not present in most musicals and was, indeed, the game changer for what a Broadway musical could be in its wake. The current production at the Georgetown Palace is quite good, but with a little emotional investment in the characters and their relationships and an effort to understand and channel the rage and anger bubbling inside them, it could have been great.
Running time: Approximately Two Hours and Thirty Minutes, including intermission
Suggested rating: PG-13 for stylized violence, language and sensuality.
WEST SIDE STORY, produced by Georgetown Palace Theater (810 S Austin Ave, Georgetown, TX, 78626). Performances run weekends through Mar. 19th: Friday & Saturday at 7:30pm, Sunday at 2pm.
Ticket prices for the 2016-2017 Season are $30 Adults, $28 Seniors (55+), $28 Students and Active Military, and $14 Children (13 & younger). $1 Ticketing Fee will be added per ticket at checkout. Student Rush Tickets $17 at the door with student ID. Group rates are available for 20 or more. Reservations: https://www.georgetownpalace.com