In 1957 four brilliant, up-and-coming talents—Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins came together to accomplish musical theater history, by updating and adapting William Shakespeare’s tragic romance, “Romeo and Juliet”.
The result is one of the most innovative and thoroughly unforgettable musical dramas of our time known as “West Side Story”! Now this ageless tale is the latest offering from “Mc Coy-Rigby Entertainment’ and “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” in La Mirada, California. Given a lively and always enthralling new staging by Ovation Award-Winning Director Richard Israel along with plenty of sumptuous choreography by John Todd, Musical Direction is by Brent Crayon. “This show is gonna blow your mind” enthused Producer Tom McCoy on opening weekend—and he couldn’t be more on the money! Powerful, poignant, and unsettling relevant, “West Side Story” also boasts a breathtaking score–featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, which has practically come to exemplify “Cool”. Indeed, anyone even remotely familiar with this classic musical is apt to recognize the numerous hits from it that have gone on to become authentic, Honest-To-God, standards in the canon of American Music. These include “Tonight,” “Maria,” “America”, “Something’s Coming”, “One Hand, One Heart’ and “Somewhere” –most of which capture the joys, insecurities, and restlessness of youth. Just as impressive is the first-class treatment the show has currently received from McCoy-Rigby Entertainment and “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”.
Widely considered one of the greatest love stories ever to be played out on the musical stage, the show’s creators reset the action in 1950’s era New York City, where “Tony” meets and promptly falls for the beautiful young Puerto-Rican immigrant, “Maria” after laying eyes on her at a dance held at the local gymnasium. The problem, as both swiftly discover, is that they are on opposing sides of warring street gangs– “the Jets” (which Tony’s best friend “Riff” is leader of) and “the Sharks” which Maria’s older brother “Bernardo” and other close relations are involved with—including Bernardo’s girlfriend “Anita” with whom Maria works and is like a caring older sister to the girl.) In fact, before long we discover that Bernardo had even brought his little sister to “America” in order to marry his friend and “gang lieutenant’ “Chino”. “The sharks bite hard!” Riff advises Tony as he tries to convince him to join the old gang for one more ‘rumble’ with their cross-town enemies. Trouble arises after a clandestine meeting with Maria (on her building’s fire-escape that directly references Shakespeare’s classic “Balcony Scene” in “Romeo And Juliet”,) when Tony promises her he’ll use his influence with the Jets to make sure things between the two gangs don’t get too out of hand. During their ‘War Counsel’ at “Pop’s Drug Store” where Tony works, “the Sharks” and “the Jets” banter over which weapons they should use against each other—never quite agreeing on the best actions to take. However, Tony shows up and suggests the simplest way to rumble is not to have each member fight but instead just one selected by each gang. “The Best Man from each gang slugs it out” he proposes. The day of the fight gives rise to one of the best, most sophisticated musical sequences in this or any musical, featuring five intricate harmonies, titled “Tonight Quintet”. Rest assured this segment certainly doesn’t disappoint as each character or group climactically look ahead to what is doubtless going to be a fateful evening for all of them (whether good or bad,) as the action speeds toward the inevitable tragic Act break. (This too features more dazzling choreography that will leave you breathless!)
Act Two opens in the humble apartment “Maria” shares with her working class parents, as she keeps vigil with the other “Shark’s” girlfriends, anxiously awaiting news from the rumble that Tony had promised he’d quell. This leads to the jaunty, “I Feel Pretty”, as the ladies, unaware of what has occurred, playfully tease “Maria” who admits she’s feeling pretty– special, now that she’s in love (just not with who they think she is!) An infectiously buoyant tune that’s given a beguiling execution here, this song could itself define the term ‘mood elevator’ (so how can you resist not at least mouthing the words to this one?) It’s an enlivening way to launch the second act even if that sense of levity doesn’t remain for long. Chino eventually arrives with the horrible news of Bernardo’s death—at the hands of Tony no less! When Tony arrives, he tries to console Maria and the pair sing of escaping to a place of “Peace and quiet and open air” far away from hate, prejudice, and misery in the city that’s fast becoming a prison to them. That number, “Somewhere” is the thematic cornerstone of the entire production, unfolding as a feverish dream—initially to a frenetic cadence as the stage is bathed in strident colors; gradually, both the music and the lights soften, and dancers clad in cool pastels begin a graceful ballet suffused by soft amber lights. Although they have their individual instances of brilliance here and there all through the proceedings, THIS is where each dancer, together with Tony and Maria (who are situated center stage,) incandesce! The lyrics are sung by an off-stage choir until the entire cast take up the singing, conjuring up a beautiful vision that’s near-stupendous in its grandeur, but one alas, we know will never be. Harsh reality quickly interrupts in the form of Riff and Bernardo reappearing to symbolize the pervasive and unyielding conflict that plagues each of them. Soon thereafter though, the “Jet’s” comic divertissement, “Gee, Officer Krupke” is another rousing ensemble effort for the boys–arriving just when it is most needed to raise spirits in the middle of all the seemingly relentless “Sturm-and-Drang” the second half throws at us. Well staged, and–thanks to the gang’s slick, rapid-fire delivery and slapstick-like antics, none of the jokes fall flat—hitting their marks with the assuredness of a champion archer’s arrow. It too, ranks as another collective success for those involved. Even so, the inexorable conclusion is startling regardless of whether you know what’s going to happen, and will quite appropriately leave you teary-eyed, as in the end, Maria is left, if not completely alone on a bare stage, nonetheless emanating an agonizing aura of absolute desolation as the stage goes dark save for one shrill white light focused only on her. After this show, you’ll KNOW you’ve been through a monumental theatrical experience.
Superbly crafted, thought-provoking and heartbreaking all at once, Richard Israel’s direction is fluid—giving rise to excellent continuity from one scene into the next. Israel stays exhilaratingly true to the original as well; the world he paints is one where all is definitely NOT ‘peaches and cream’ as far as adolescent love is concerned, but he shrewdly capitalizes on the show’s plethora of strengths, and as a result the production doesn’t just flow—it sails at a spirited clip. So too, a thrilling aspect to the material he’s dealing with is how the numbers—whether primarily sung or danced, spring from (and help heighten or illustrate) the diverse characters’ emotional states (nasty or nice!) Working in unison with Choreographer John Todd, it’s often tricky to determine where one’s efforts end and the other’s begins, and here too, the production is all the more incredible for it! Todd’s choreography is more often than not eye-popping—commencing with the all-dancing prologue, which stands in for a formal overture. Setting up the basic conflict (the ongoing turf war between “the Jets” and “the Sharks”,) it verifies right-off that these guys have all the moves that matter! Another lavish dance interlude is “The Dance At The Gym” where our Hero “Tony” will at last meet our Heroine, “Maria” (–and for this, even the scene change going in to it is dynamic, as dancers enter from both sides of the stage already in full terpsichorean mode!) At the same time, it exhibits Todd’s dexterity with constructing dance maneuvers that can communicate the plot—not to mention amuse the audience, when the ‘host’ suggests a ‘cakewalk’ sort of social endeavor as a way the two sides can meet new potential partners, only to have them immediately go back to their old cliques the second the music stops playing. Subsequently, it’s the ladies turn to at last bask in the spot-light—and bask they do, with the vibrant extravaganza, “America”, which sees them letting off some steam displaying some flamboyant, ‘Muy Caliente’ “Salsa-inspired” exploits, while engaging in some terrific joint harmonizing, which all adds up to a genuinely jivey Highlight of Act One.
Sporting wholesome, “boy-next-door” good looks, and possessing a pleasantly smooth and velvety voice, Eddie Egan is “Tony”. Overall, his renditions of the respective songs he’s been given leans more towards an easy, “Top 40” type of stylization as opposed to anything overtly operatic (as too many others have presented them,) but this doesn’t mean that they are any less sublime here. He proves this early on with his opening salvo, “Something’s Coming”, where he keeps the lyrics unforced (which ironically makes the emotions underlying them even more forceful!) Egan also allows the no-holds-barred exuberance of “Maria (I just met a girl named Maria)” to resonate from a place very real and identifiable. This suave, subtler turn later actually helps lend an air of reverence and dignity to the couple’s romantic “after-work” duet, “One Hand, One Heart”–a major victory for them both. By the same token, they both work melodious magic during the famous “Balcony Scene”, and here’s where Egan pulls out all the stops both vocally and expressively, showing just how forceful a singer he can be when the material or the occasion motivates it. As the “Juliet” to his “Romeo”– “Maria”, Ashley Marie herself excels from beginning to end. A rare triple threat performer, she’s equally capable as a singer, a dancer, and as an actress handling and conveying deeper (sometimes excruciating) emotions. Her first real opportunity to demonstrate just how amazing a voice she has is on that fire-escape/balcony with Tony—as they serenade one another with the iconic anthem “Tonight”. At turns, intense and daringly optimistic, they each invest these sumptuous lyrics with just the right touch of unrestrained joy—so much so that one can’t help but feel it themselves beyond the foot-lights! Their combined efforts during this, makes for a complete triumph for each. Directly after intermission, Ms. Marie delights once again at the center of “I Feel Pretty”—easily convincing us (at least fleetingly) to hope for the best right along with her, despite our knowing what we know from the first act’s quietus. Once she does learn of the night’s events, the pitiable mixed emotions of grief and betrayal–yet through it all, love and fear for “Tony”, is where Ms. Marie really affirms her substantial gifts as an actress as well! Just before the show’s fateful climax, she transports us once again with her part in the wistful, but unwavering, duet opposite “Anita”, “I Have A Love”.
As “Riff”, the leader of “The Jets” and Tony’s Best bud (“Womb to Tomb”, “Sperm to Worm”,) Michael Starr controls the stage right from his first steps on to it! He does a stirring job initiating the show’s opening salvo, “When You’re A Jet”—demonstrating some remarkable acrobatic skills to boot! Following this, he does just as commendable a job leading “Cool”—staged as an intriguing blend of athletic “Capoeira” martial-arts variations combined with a fusion of jazz and ballet. Toward its finish, Starr hits some dynamic sustained notes, thus verifying that he too, has some pretty significant vocal chops of his own! Bernardo’s saucy girlfriend and Maria’s best friend, “Anita”, is played by Marlene Martinez who never misses a step nor a robust melodic-phrase: she simply amazes all-around! Of course, “Anita” is a fantastic character for any actress because she’s so well-rounded with numerous ‘sides’ to show at various times in the story; admirably, Ms. Martinez excels with them all. Furthermore, she has a practiced way with humor, dispensing a clever “punch-line” in such a way as to achieve the best, most hilarious response. For instance, during the big “America” number, this gal doesn’t simply shine—she glows with enough raw energy to light up all the buildings in old Manhattan itself! Conversely in Act Two, she reveals an entirely different side to her character with her half of “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love”, in which she passionately tries to dissuade “Maria” from what she feels is misplaced devotion to the juvenile “killer” she sees “Tony” as. Just as seething with bitterness and pain as “America” was light-hearted, her softer side is again revealed with the number’s last stanzas, as she ultimately agrees to help her more ‘innocent’ friend. It is then that Ms. Martinez gets to conclusively demonstrate her abundant dramatic savvy in the scene directly afterward. Euphemistically called “The Taunting”, in it “Anita” attempts to give “Tony” a message from “Maria”, but instead is brutally physically attacked by “the Jets”. It’s harsh and uneasy to watch any way you look at it—and superior testament to Martinez’s acting.
As “Bernardo”, Armando Yearwood Jr. is a tall, charismatic and commanding presence, providing his portrayal with equal parts magnetism and menace. While his appearance is mostly relegated to the first act, he leaves an indelible impression from his time on stage, pretty much driving the action while he’s there. Time Winters is another major stand-out among the cast as “Tony’s” employer, the sagacious, if far more world-weary, “Doc”. As one of the few “adult’ characters, Winters depicts “Doc” as an older and very ‘Yiddish’ gentle-spirit who, though tired, is persistently willing to at least try to find the good in those around him–until they make it so he no longer can. Think of him as “Mott Street’s” answer to “King Solomon”–and with this choice, he gives us the man’s unspoken “back-story” with every word he utters. As his total antithesis, Joe Hart paints “Lt. Shrank” as a hardboiled, hard-Ass from the streets himself—one not a bit above a little larceny, or bending of the rules if it will make his job ‘easier’: “If I don’t put down the roughhousing—I get put down!” Shrank advises the teenaged hoods of “The Jets”. Erik Gratton comparably makes his mark as Shrank’s “enforcer”–the boorish bohunk-of-a-bully with a badge—“Officer Krupke”.
While there is much going on stage, performance-wise, this production can also claim some pretty incredible technical effects–all of which serve to support the performers, enhancing their work, while stopping just short of over shadowing any of them. Still, it’s safe to say that the show wouldn’t have the same ‘electricity’ were it lacking these more perfunctory elements. Stephen Gifford’s metal chain-link fence “curtain” which opens to unveil towering backdrops splayed with monochromatic graffiti, is what first greets the audience upon entering—and it remain omnipresent throughout as assorted set pieces roll-on or off. Interestingly, the one time this backdrop does exit, in essence ‘opening up’ the stage, is during the “dream” portion of “Somewhere”. Moreover, Costume Designer Thomas G. Marquez favors a slightly more contemporary take on late 1950’s inner-city apparel, choosing clothing that perceptively evokes a sweaty and sweltering summer in the city (on top of all the ‘deeper’ emblematic meanings that may connote.) He doesn’t, in any way, scrimp on the color though, devising a vivacious tropical paradise in the heart of the unrelenting concrete ghetto whither these characters subsist, favoring hues of red, purple, orange and amber; then, as the situations begin to warrant them, more muted hues like grey, olive-green and in the end, black. Every bit as colorful–and making incredible use of light and shadow is Steven Young’s lighting designs. His contribution is particularly noteworthy to this production, as more than any other in recent memory, the lighting is used exceptionally well to direct focus, such as when “Maria” and “Tony” first meet at the dance. Then, the world around them ‘fades away’ (at least briefly) into defused shades while they, on the other hand, are bathed in a stunning white cascade. Later, during their duet on the fire-escape, pin-points of ‘star light’ are splayed across the back scrim and stage borders, casting an other-worldly and hypnotic “3-D” spell—briskly fading upon the song’s last notes.
So ‘Go Man Go’—to “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada, CA 90638. Having opened on Saturday, April 22nd, “West Side Story” is slated to play through Sunday, May 14th, 2017. Performances are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8:00 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. In addition, there will be an ASL interpreted performance on Saturday, May 13th and an Open Captioned performance on Saturday, May 6th—both at 2:00 PM. A “Talkback” with the cast and creative team will be held on Wednesday, May 10th. Tickets may be obtained either via phone by calling (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310, or online by logging onto: www.lamiradatheatre.com. (Student, Senior, Child, and Group discounts are available; Special reduced-price Student Tickets are also available for the first 15 performances of the production.)
Productions Stills By Jason Niedle, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Richard Israel, John Todd, Brent Crayon & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2017 Production Of “West Side Story” For Making This Story Possible.