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Review: Timeless, Cherished WEST SIDE STORY Receives a Near to Perfect Production at La Mirada

West Side Story/book by Arthur Laurents/music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Stephen Sondheim/directed by Richard Israel/choreographed by John Todd/at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts/through May 14

Indeed, West Side Story is the most acclaimed musical. And, ask musical actors/actresses what is their favorite Broadway musical of all time and most concur, West Side Story. Why? It has phenomenal music by Leonard Bernstein, with concise poetic lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a tight and gripping book by Arthur Laurents. The brilliant choreography established in 1957 by Jerome Robbins will never be forgotten. The book presents one of the most powerful love stories ever, 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 two and a half hours ... and its message and images of love linger long after the curtain falls.

Arthur Laurents' revival in 2009 was certainly more realistic than others. 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 original ending showing hope for the future in a total sense of community was dimmed.

Thankfully the current production at La Mirada Theatre is the original, traditional staging with the theatrical ending in tact. The ensemble, under the exemplary direction of Richard Israel, is quite remarkable. It is such a joy to see 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 unbounded energy and athletic leaps and bounds. One thing I particularly like in this production is that all the gang members are clean-shaven, for in the 50s guys were less likely to sport beards or moustaches, which is all the rage now.

From the moment Ashley Marie and Eddie Egan as Maria and Tony see each other across the gym floor at the dance, they instantly connect. Without this spark, the show Would be lost. Marie has a beautiful vocal instrument; Egan has the gentle nature of Richard Beymer who played the role on film. Marlene Martinez makes Anita passionate and humane. Her singing and dancing are superb. "America" shows her right on target matural and forthright without going overboard. Michael Starr as Riff is electric as are. Justin Micahel Wilcox as Action, Danielle Kay as Anybodys, Dino Nicandros as Chino, Armando Yearwood Jr. as Bernardo and Chris Meissner as Baby John and the other Sharks and Jets are incredibly focused, as are the adults: Time Winters as Doc, Joe Hart as Lt. Schrank, and Erik Gratton as Krupke.

Director Israel has staged impeccably. His "Gee, Officer Krupke", popular and fun to watch, is dynamite. John Todd's choreography, especially the dance mix in the gymnasium and the rumble are appropriately jolting. The dark scenic design with steel platforms by Stepehn Gifford works as efficiently as fencing, which is pushed into the background. The bridal shop, Doc's pharmacy and Maria's bedroom all play well with a minimum of props and set pieces in front. Kudos to Thomas G. Marquez for period costuming, as well as to musical director Brent Crayon conducting a splendid orchestra.

The entire show is more than satisfying. It is perfectly cast from top to bottom , making it the quintessential representation for both fans of the stage version and for those first-timers, familiar only with the ten time Academy Award-winning 1961 film. Don't miss West Side Story at La Mirada through May 14 only!

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