West Side Story is an iconic-classic. It is the American Musical Theatre’s only real tragedy - a show that has a strong relevant social message tied in with, not only intricate gorgeous music, but also extreme emotional depth that few other musicals can accomplish. That is why it saddens me to say that this non-equity tour of West Side Story is by far one of the worst I’ve ever seen, and that includes some pretty shaky community theatre versions. I’m not kidding.
Everything about it has the feel of a college theatre production: The cast is well-rehearsed and high spirited, but ultimately they’re disengaged from the true meaning of the text. In the past when I’ve seen bad performances of West Side Story I at least come away from it having felt moved by the story. This time, however, the only feeling I had throughout the night was one of pain; and not because of anything happening in the story.
For starters, the young men playing the Jets and Sharks seem less like gangs engaged in deadly rival street warfare and more like competitors on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance? These guys are way too clean cut, too well-polished, too suburban, and worst of all way too nice. These are the types of kids that you wouldn’t even think twice about sitting next to on the train ride home or helping you cross the street. That in and of itself is the central problem (among many others) of this tour: There’s absolutely no “danger.” If the danger that exists between the two gangs is not established in the Prologue then the tension is deflated for the rest of the story. And yes, even though they’re dancing it can still be done in more masculine and threatening ways.
When it comes to the cast, most of the performers in this production are not triple threats (having the innate ability to sing, dance, and act equally well). They were clearly cast for their dance abilities first and foremost. But no matter how high they kick their legs, form straight lines, or move in-sync together, they never manage to express much of anything other than “look how good I can dance”.
The choreographer (Joey McKneely) put too much emphasis on re-creating Jerome Robbins’s original choreography exactly as it was in 1957 and not enough on adding personality or meaning to the dances. Who cares how perfect a double-pirouette is done when there’s no intention behind it? The attention on the choreography wasn’t entirely in vain. Overall, the dancing is great: it’s very clean, sharp, and pleasant to look at. But being technically great is different from being “truthful”- a concept that seems to have been entirely lost on director David Saint, who should’ve spent additional rehearsal time helping the actors to develop their characters.
For instance, when it comes to character development, the Jets in particular are missing the rough, urban grittiness that would realistically be there. Instead, their attempts at building character development bring to mind that of cartoon characters. In particular, the man playing A-Rab (Mark Deler) seems to think that forcefully enunciating his words is the same thing as acting tough. It’s not. And Riff (Theo Lencicki) was about as threatening as a puppy. No way would he be a leader of a street gang.
As much as I admire the late Jerome Robbins and his inventive choreography, I've got to be honest, it’s outdated. It was used in the film version and it’s been re-created thousands and thousands of times in productions across the country. It seems so un-original now. In hindsight, it might’ve been better to give the choreography a fresh approach when Laurents revived it back in 2009. What worked in the 1950s and ‘60s won’t necessarily bring the same message to audiences in 2013. It needs a more urban street vibe to the movements. Not hip-hop moves per se but an angrier tone. These are inarticulate kids after all. They don’t know how to express their emotions in words. But through dance they’re able to connect with those feelings of pain, anger, and love and let them release through their movements. It’s really sad when all you can think of during the “Cool” number is a Gap commercial.
Addison Reid Coe, who plays Tony, is about as fun to watch on stage as a piece of wood. He’s a good looking young guy, but unfortunately that’s about all he has going for him in this role. Coe is completely lost on stage and is devoid of giving Tony any color outside of portraying him as an innocent "nice guy". It’s an interesting take on the character, but I don’t know many "nice guys" who were founding members of a street gang. The infamous song “Maria” was missing that sense of wonder and thrill. Every time Tony sings her name it should have had a new sense of excitement to it. There are so many levels to that song that a young actor can play around with. But to have just one choice for the entire number is just, well…. boring. Coe’s Tony never seems torn by the conflicting desires and struggles that he finds himself caught between. As for Coe’s singing voice, it’s not at all what you’d imagine Tony would sound like. At times he sounds like an old man with a wobbly vibrato while other times he is clearly straining to sing the higher notes. Coe is not a terrible singer, but much like his acting, it's deficient of substance and meaning.
Maria, played by Mary JoAnn Grisson, has a vibrant youthful energy to her that is infectious. However, the actress hasn’t fully grasped the concept of acting while singing at the same time. When she does sing, however, her beautiful soprano voice rings throughout the Oriental Theatre. Unfortunatley you could only understand what she was saying about half the time. Even though there was a lot of Spanish being sung, her thick Puerto Rican accent made many of her English words totally incomprehensible. Grisson is a decent actress, but her final monologue at the end of the show was too rushed. It lacked the intensity and desperation that the moment deserved.
For a story about love in the face of hatred, this production was almost completley void of both conflicting elements. The chemistry between Coe's Tony and Grisson's Maria is about as lackluster as any high school production. There was no passion and no yearning sexual desires radiating from them. And thus every scene they have together feels fake. It’s like they’re both trying to ignite fireworks without any matches. The “Somewhere” duet and ballet in Act 2 lacked any real emotion because the set-up into the song was too rushed and forced. The balcony scene in Act 1 should be riddled with the feelings of danger, excitement, and a little innocent feeling of naughtiness between the two. It’s a retelling of Romeo & Juliet after all. With no real chemistry, it just falls flat. And in the Act 1 bridal shop scene I found myself more interested in the mannequins than what either Maria or Tony were doing or saying.
The only real astounding performance on this touring production is from Michelle Alves as Anita. Alves, a native Puerto Rician, is a true triple threat actress and was at the top of her game all night. Whenever Alves is on stage it’s like a breath of fresh air comes in to wake up the cast. Her fiery rendition of “America” was an absolute blast to watch and one of the few highlights in this production. I’ve never seen an actress play her with such confidence and maturity, and that includes Karen Olivo’s performance on Broadway. Anita is without a doubt the most developed character in the show, and with Alves’ portrayal you never question who really calls the shots in Anita’s relationship with Bernardo. She has the upper hand and enjoys it that way. Alves plays against the sex and keeps Anita’s anger hidden until it explodes in “A Boy Like That”. It was brilliant. Speaking of that song, this was the first time I’ve ever gotten a real sense that Anita may have once had a white lover in her life who broke her heart. That’s why Anita feels compelled to warn Maria about “a boy like that” breaking her as well. She sings from experience.
This is not the West Side Story from the 1961 movie version or the one you may have seen on stage growing up. Instead, this version is based on the 2009 bi-lingual Broadway revival which had many of the Shark members speaking and singing in Spanish throughout. The Spanish helped emphasis the cultural differences between the two competing sides, but it also confused important plot points for the English speaking audience, some of whom were not as familiar with the material. The use of Spanish is understandable for some of the dialogue, but I personally found no need for Spanish in the songs. Music is heightened emotion and can be seen as a universal language in and of itself. But you’d think if they could update the Shark gang members to speaking in Spanish than they could also update the Jets corny invented slang such as “Flabber-Jaber” and “Daddio”. The intent at the time it was written was to make it timeless, but over time it seems to have had the opposite effect as much of the "slang" comes off just as dated and old-fashioned as ever.
By far the most intense moment of the night came towards the end of Act 2 when we see Anita trying to deliver a message to Tony from Maria at Doc's drugstore where she is suddenly confronted by the Jets. The Jets harass and assualt her until the whole thing escaltes to Anita nearly being forceably raped. The horror of that brief scene and Anita’s honest reaction to it is the only time the entire night that everything felt real, visceral, and intense. If only the rest of the show had the stakes raised as high as that moment we’d have an amazing night of theatre.
Bottom Line: West Side Story is Somewhat Recommended. This enthusiastic cast is made up of mostly young recent college graduates on their first national tour. That’s why the whole evening feels like a college production and why they’re struggling to connect with the material. For a national tour, even a non-equity one, you’d expect higher quality talent than this for a performance at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre. Luckily ticket prices are cheaper than usual for this underwhelming production ($18 - $85) compared to most shows at the Oriental. So even if you go see this you won’t feel like you wasted hundreds of dollars if you don’t like it. More than anything else West Side Story is a classic and the beauty of the text still comes across even the very worst of productions. It contains a strong social message about violence and overcoming racial prejudice. And any reminder of that is worth seeing nowadays.
Running Time: 2 Hours and 30 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission
Ford Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Runs through: June 16 (1 week only)
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at 7:30 PM. Saturday at 2 & 8 PM, Sunday at 2 & 7:30 PM
Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line: (800) 775-2000
All seats: $18 - $85. Group rates are available, you can inquire about them by calling (312) 977-1710
Tickets are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices (24 W. Randolph St., 151 W. Randolph St., 18 W. Monroe St., and 175 E. Chestnut St.), the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Kiosk at Water Tower Place (845 N. Michigan Ave.), the Ticket Hotline (above), and all Ticketmaster retail locations and online (above)
Directed by David Saint, Music Direction by J. Michael Duff, Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins, Reproduction Choreography by Joey McKneely, Scenic Design by James Youmans, Costume Design by David C. Woolard, Lighting Design by Howell Binkley, Sound Design by Peter McBoyle
Music by Lenoard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (and Leonard Bernstein), Book by Arthur Laurent
Cast includes: Andres Acosta, Michelle Alves, Amber Ardolino, Yesenia Ayala, Lauren Cannon, Blue Cervini, Max Chucker, Addision Reid Coe, Mark Deler, Todd Fenstermaker, Mary JoAnna Grisso, Erika Hebron, Dan Higgins, Matthew Krob, Theo Lencicki, Greg London, Guy Mandia Jr., Thomas Mothershed, Louie Napoleon, Thaddeus Pearson, Josh Pins, Anthony Raimondi, J. Nycole Ralph, Tory Ramirez, Bridget Riley, Ricardo Rique-Sanchez, Arianna Rosario, Carolina Sanchez, Michael Shultz, Jeff M. Smith, Tony Thomas, Juan Torres-Falcon, and Laura Volpacchio.