🎭 Skin Color Battles Are Nothing New | “West Side Story” @ 5-Star

West Side Story (5-Star Theatricals)Most people know the musical West Side Story. Most people think they’ve seen the musical West Side Story, but when pressed, what they mean is that they’ve seen the movie version of the musical. That movie made some changes in the stage version, and is strongly rooted in the era in which it was filmed (it is being remade this year). But neither are the stage show. When did you last see the original?

For me, the answer was 15 years ago, almost to the weekend, in a production at what was then Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks (my wife had the (mis)fortune of seeing the bilingual tour version at the Pantages in December 2010).  I say “was”, because last night both of us were at Cabrillo, since renamed 5 Star Theatricals (FB), for their new production of West Side Story. Bottom Line Up Front: This is a very good production, well-cast and well performed. The dancing could use a bit more sharpness, but given it only runs two weekends and had limited rehearsal, that’s a minor quibble.

On the odd chance that anyone is unfamiliar with West Side Story, it is essentially Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reworked an transported to New York in the 1950s. Warring families have become warring gangs, and the battle has become a racial one: whites vs. hispanics, white Americans vs. “immigrants” (in quotes, because white America conveniently forgets PR is part of America). There are still star crossed lovers, and the story ends in tragedy. The story was based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondhim (with some translations, uncredited, by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The original production was entirely directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. You can read the story of the show’s creation on Wikipedia or on the WRTI page.

Over on the Guide to Musical Theatre, I found this concise synopsis. There’s a much more detailed synopsis on the Wikipedia page.

Loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and set in the urban slums of New York, the show used, as its modern equivalents for the Montagues and Capulets the juvenile gangs of local whites (the Jets) and immigrant Puerto Ricans (the Sharks). The did battle with childish seriousness over the streets that they claim as their territory. The Jets, boastful and contemptuous of the immigrants, call on Tony, who used to be their leader but now has a regular job and is on his way to adulthood, to help their new leader Riff and the gang in a challenge to the Sharks. Riff reminds Tony of his old allegiance and of how menacing are the newcomers. Tony reluctantly agrees reluctantly but soon becomes excited with the thrill of potential combat.

Meanwhile, in a bridal shop Anita, the sweetheart of the Shark’s leader, Bernado, is converting Maria’s communion dress into a gown for the dance that evening. Maria is Bernardo’s sister. He has brought her from Puerto Rico hoping that she will marry his best friend, Chino.

At the dance Riff challenges Bernado and the groups agree to do battle. Tony and Maria have seen each other and fall in love, instantly and become oblivious to the menace that is building up around them.

Most of the Puerto Ricans are nervously elated over the coming conflict but they are confident and determined to assimilate into the American way despite the homesickness that some of them feel. The threatening groups are dispersed by a policeman but the separation is only temporary. What could have just been a game of muscle flexing turns to tragedy when Bernado provokes a knife-fight which results in Riff being killed. Bernado is murdered in turn by the avenging Tony. He flees to the home of Maria who has been told of the news of her brother’s death by Chino. Her love for Tony overcomes her hatred for her brother’s killer. Tony promises to take her away and in a dream ballet sequence the battle is re-enacted but this time the lovers are not allowed to meet. The dream turns into a nightmare but Tony and Maria flee.

The gangs meanwhile are concerned with their inevitable encounter with the law and mockingly imagine how they will deal with the situation in the number “Gee, Officer Krupke”. Anita taunts Maria for remaining faithful to Tony but nonetheless agrees to deliver Maria’s message for Tony to the Jets. Unfortunately the Jets threaten to abuse and rape her that she is driven to claim that Chino has shot and killed Maria. Hearing this, angry and wild with grief Tony goes after Chino, but Chino coolly shoots him just as Tony discovers that Maria is not dead after all. Somewhat ashamed, the Jets and the Sharks between them remove Tony’s body as Maria follows them.

As the production ended, one thought came to mind: How different this was from last weekend’s similar tragedy. Think about the compare and contrast with Miss Saigon, for it says a lot about why one production has become timeless, and one increasingly problematic. Both are stories ultimately based on classic theatre written by white men about cultures they didn’t know personally (Puccini about Japan, Shakespeare about Italy). Both were adapted into a story about cultural clash. Both end in tragedy, in the death of a key figure propelling the story, leaving the loved ones left behind to pick up the pieces after the show ends.

But whereas Miss Saigon is a problematic adaptation, portraying no heroism or honor in the Vietnamese except for the lead heroine, West Side Story does not draw a caricature of the Puerto Rican culture. They are shown with loving families, as people who care about each other, who care about the country, and who just want their chance at the American way. The only racist sentiment (other than the inherent gang racism, of course) is from the Police, who express a racist attitude of anyone not white or lower class. But that, unfortunately, is something that is still present today. Just ask any hispanic or black family if they get fair treatment from some police departments.

Miss Saigon tells a story that in increasingly dated and stereotypical, but with beautiful music, dance, and stagecraft. West Side Story,  on the other hand, tells a story that is a timeless star-crossed lover story, set in an environment of racial fashions that alas is still far too prevalent today. Perhaps one day the racial and ethnic divisions that make West Side Story work will go away, and that aspect of the story will also seem dated. Hopefully one day.

The production used the modified 2009 version of the script. This was the version that replaced some of the songs sung by Puerto-Rican characters with Spanish lyrics, although by the time the tour settled down and the script was finalized for MTI, the only Spanish lyrics left was the sequence of the Sharks in “Tonight”. There were some relics in a bit of Spanish dialogue at points in the story.

The director, Larry Raben (FB), made some interesting directorial choices in the show. For Doc, the owner of the store where Tony works, he cast an African American. This emphasized without words the separation of that character from the battles around him, and made his attempts to stop the violence even more poignant.  He also presented the dream ballet sequence using a youth ensemble. This highlighted the innocence of the internal conceptions of the characters from the hard exteriors we saw on stage. There were some problems in the execution of the sequence, but the idea itself was an interesting choice. Raben also did a great job of working with the actors to bring out the characters as distinct.

As always with 5-Star/Cabrillo, the performances were strong. 5-Star uses a mix of AEA-talent (æ) (some established, some upcoming) in a few select lead positions, and the top local talent and upcoming local talent in smaller positions. I always like to point out that Katharine McPhee got her start on the Cabrillo boards, many years ago as the lead in Annie Get Your Gun.  It is a key training ground for talent.

In the lead positions were Brandon Keith Rogers (FB) (æ) Tony and Giselle Torres (⭐FB) Maria. Both gave very strong performances, and the chemistry between the two was believable. Rogers had a higher voice that I remembered for the Tony role, but it worked quite well and was lovely in all the songs. Torres got even higher notes, but handled them with aplomb. They were great.

Turning to the rest of the Jets: Aleks Pevec (FB) (æ) Riff, the Gang Leader; Doug Penikas (FBAction; Nic Olsen (FBA-Rab; Chet Norment (FBBaby John; Daniel Brackett (FBBig Deal; Brock Markham (FBDieseland Antonia Vivino (FBAnybodys. Pevec was strong as Riff, with a great stage presence and a nice singing voice. Most of the other guys blended into the background in the numbers, with Penikas and Markham as standouts in their characterizations. All the guys got to shine in the difference characterizations they get in “Officer Krupkie”. I emphasize the word “guys”, because as the one non-guy, Vivino’s Anybodys was always a standout, bringing a fun playful energy to her role. Although not explicitly credited, she was also the lead vocal for the dream Maria in “Somewhere”, bringing a lovely voice to the song (and outshining in vocal quality the dream Tony). Note that Vivino has a new album out with her sisters Natalia and Donna called DNA, available on CDBaby and Amazon. I happened to pick up a copy of the album yesterday because I remember Natalia from other Cabrillo productions, and although I’ve only listened to a few songs to date, it is beautiful.

The Jet girls (other than Anybodys) have smaller more backgroundish roles, and although they have character names, their characters come across as less distinct to the audience. The Jet girls were: Tara Carbone (⭐FB, FB) Graziella; Elizabeth Sheck (FB) Velma; Alley Kerr (⭐FB, FB) Minnie; Carly Haig (FB) Clarice; Lindsey Wells (FB) Clarice; and Laura Aronoff (⭐FB, FB) Suzy.

This brings us to the rival gang, the Sharks. In the lead positions for the Sharks were Patrick Ortiz (FB) (æ) Bernardo, the leader; Lauren Louis (FB) Anita, Bernardo’s Girl; and John Paul Batista (FB) Chino. Ortiz was very strong as Bernardo, with a strong stage presence and great singing and dancing voice. Louis got to shine as Anita, especially in “America” where she gets to be very playful. Batista also had a good stage presence, but didn’t get to shine until the closing scenes. Rounding out the gang were James Everts (⭐FB, FB) Pepe; Jared Cardiel (FB) Indio; Lyndon Apostol (FB) Luis; Joah Ditto (FB) Anxious; and Antony Sanchez (æ) Nibbles.

The other Shark girls, who get to shine in both “America” and “I Feel Pretty”, are: Taleen Shrikian (FBRosalia; Cheyenne Omani (FB) Consuela; Sophie Shapiro (FB) Teresita; Veronica Gutierrez (FB) Francisca; Arianna White (FB) Estrella and Erin Gonzalez (FB) Margarita.

The few adults in the show have much smaller roles: Ivan Thompson Doc; Skip Pipo (FBSchrank, Glad Hand; and Rich Grosso (⭐FB, FB) Krupke. Notable among these was Thompson’s Doc, who I mentioned previously. Note also that Pipo is a REP alumni, having been in multiple REP shows. REP memories are fading, and so REP alumni and season ticket holders need to stick together.

Rounding out the cast was the youth ensemble, who we only see during the dream sequence. The ensemble is primarily a dance ensemble, although one gets to sing a lead a dream Tony (and was a little shakey). Dance-wise they were reasonably good overall; and remarkably good given their age. The ensemble consisted of: Anabel Alexander; Brando de la Rosa; Natalie de la Rosa; Emma Driscoll; Iyana Hannans; Callie Kiefer; Mikayla Kiefer; Daniel Peters; Luke Pryor; Drew Rosen; Sawyer Sublette; and Emily Tatoosi (⭐FB).

This brings us to the dance and stage movement, under the direction of choreographer Karl Warden (FB) and dance captain Veronica Gutierrez (FB). This is, at its heart, a dance show. The dancing in the show was good, but at times, the sharp precision the music leads one to expect just wasn’t there. It was close, and most of the audience didn’t perhaps notice it. But I’m used to movement in drum corps, where all the rifles come down with a singular snap. The Bernstein movement requires that precision, and in quite a few numbers it wasn’t there. This isn’t a major flaw, as this is a show with limited performances and limited rehearsals, and that precision take work to build. Hopefully, they can get a bit closer in the second weekend. This was particularly notable during “Somewhere”, as the kids ensemble just doesn’t have the strength at their age to pull off the strength and power the dream ballet requires. They come close, and are beautiful, but at are about 90%. On the other hand, the fight choreography, presumably under the fight captains Lyndon Apostol (FB) and James Everts (⭐FB, FB), was spectacular, creating believable and menacing fight sequences. Well done, well done.

The pit orchestra was under the musical direction of Jeff Rizzo (FB), who served as conductor. The orchestra consisted of: Ian Dahlberg (FB) Flute, Piccolo, Alto Sax, Clarinet; Darryl Tanikawa (FB) Clarinet, Alto Sax, E-flat Clarinet; Bill Wilson Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone;   Matt Germaine (FB) Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Flute, Baritone Saxophone; John Nunez (FB) Bassoon;  Melissa Hendrickson (FB) Horn; Bill Barrett (FB) Trumpet 1; Chris Maurer (FBTrumpet 2; Nathan Stearns Trombone; Sharon Cooper Violin 1 (Concertmaster); Sally Berman Violin 2; Judy Garf (FB) Violin 3; Stephen Green Cello; Jennifer Oikawa Keyboard Synthesizer; Lance Conrad-Marut GuitarShane Harry (FB) Double String Bass; Chris Kimbler Piano, Celeste; Steve Pemberton Drums; and Tyler Smith (FB) Percussion. Darryl Tanikawa (FB) was the Orchestra Contractor. The orchestra was produced by Tanikawa Artists Management LLC. The orchestra had a great sounds and was a joy to listen to.

Lastly, the remainder of the production and creative team. There is no credit for scenic design, although the program notes that the set and scenery were provided by The Music and Theatre Company LLC, with costumes provided in party by the Maine State Music Theatre. Other costumes were designed by Kathryn Poppen, with hair and wig design by Jessica Mills (FB) and prop design by Alex Choate (FB).   Jose Santiago (FB)’s lighting design worked well in establishing time and mood; I particularly noted it during “One Hand, One Heart” where there was just a beautiful background color.  Jonathan Burke (FB)’s sound design was good, as always. Rounding out the production credits: Talia Krispel (FB) Production Stage Manager; Jack Allaway (FB) Technical Director; David Elzer/Demand PR Publicity; Fresh Interactive (FB) Marketing; Patrick Cassidy (FB) Artistic Director. Originally produced on Broadway by Robert E. Griffith and Harold S. Prince, by Arrangement with Roger L. Stevens.

West Side Story has one more performance this weekend, and a number next weekend. For more information and tickets, visit the 5-Star Site. Discount tickets may be available on Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2018-2019 season], the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). That’s followed by Loose Knit at Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB). August ends with Mother Road and As You Like It at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (FB). In between those points, August is mostly open.

Early September is also mostly open. Then things heat up, with the third weekend bringing Barnum at Musical Theatre Guild (FB), and the fourth weekend bringing Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). We start getting busy in October, starting with The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors Co-op (FB). The next weekend brings Anastasia – The Musical at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB).

Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at  Actors Co-op (FB). The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB).  November concludes with a hold for Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks. Somewhere in there we’ll also be fitting in Nottingham Festival and Thumbleweed Festival, if they are happening this year. Yes, there are a lot of open dates in there, but I expect that they will fill in as time goes on.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!

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