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BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY at Town Hall Arts Center

I've seen countless renditions of Romeo and Juliet...but I can't recall if I'd ever caught any version of West Side Story in its entirety. (Is there a bullet left for me, Chino?) Luckily, the Denver scene seems bent on fixing that this year, presenting multiple stagings of the Jerome Robbins classic. Littleton's Town Hall Arts Center is currently bringing back the show for a 10th anniversary production.

The original creative team is a dream, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, Robbins assembled some of the best minds of American musical theatre. There's no question why the show has been cycling through the theatre scene for more than 50 years.

Inspired by the Shakespearean classic, the action thrusts you into the rival between two New York gangs--the Jets of white America vs. the Puerto Rican Sharks. In the height of their war, a love story emerges between Tony (a former Jet) and Maria (sister of lead Shark, Bernardo). You can probably guess how things turn out.

Director Nick Sugar found a way to take the typical grandeur of West Side and condense it into Town Hall's tight space, bringing a deeper focus onto the character's emotions; something you don't get from most productions of the show. The choreography, also by Sugar, was well-executed and frequently enchanting. The prologue was energetic and instantly gave the production a punch. The "Dream Ballet" was simplistically gorgeous. Quintessential numbers like "Cool," "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "America" were lively and fun. I wanted a bit more electricity from "The Dance at the Gym," but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Jared Ming and Carolyn Lohr are paired nicely as the ill-fated Tony and Maria, matching each other's optimistic spirits; it's clear to see why the couple bonds instantly. Ming gives Tony a hero's charisma, and Lohr lends Maria a peppy optimism, noticeably contrasting the harsh snark of their respective gangs. The actors have beautiful voices; however, Ming's straight-tone feels a bit too modern for Tony at times, and when blended with Lohr's operatic Maria, there's a perfection missing.

Ronni Gallup played a fierce Anita, partnered with Kent Randell's turbulent Bernardo, who returns to the role at Town Hall after playing it 10 years prior. The duo showcases outstanding choreographing and makes the characters clear standouts. Notably, Tim Howard gives a riveting performance as Riff, the leader of the Jets. The rest of the cast brings a zeal to stage.

But for such an iconic score, I found myself longing to hear it played by a live orchestra. While tracked music can generally be acceptable, the prerecorded music for this piece felt outdated and cheesy, like the kind of backing you'd find at a karaoke bar or perhaps a West Side Story arcade game. Considering the size of the venue and cast, the lack of musicians was understandable, but I would have been intrigued to see a more innovative take on the orchestration.

Where the production succeeded most was in its intimate moments. The rumble between the gangs was compellingly staged and hauntingly lit by designer Seth Alison, who gave the piece the right vibe throughout. Generally, emotional moments between characters were tangible and endearing. It was thrilling to have the gang members jet through the audience. Set design by Tina Anderson seemed complicated at first glance, but I was impressed with the quick scene changes and diversity of acting space it allowed. Where I struggled was seeing anything that happened near the floor of the stage, which unfortunately is some of the show's more enticing scenes. Fortunately, the intimate space gives you what feels like a fresh take on the classic.

West Side Story runs through Sunday, Oct. 11. Show times are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. (6:30 p.m. on Oct. 11). For tickets, call (303)794-2787 ext. 5 (Monday - Friday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 1 hour prior to show time) or online at TownHallArtsCenter.org.

Photos: Michael Ensminger


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