“West Side Story” never disappoints
By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
One barely turns around these days without finding another production of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and book writer Arthur Laurents’ 1955 classic musical, “West Side Story.”
The popular musical based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was seen as recently as February in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production at the Spreckels, and now it may be caught at Lamb’s Players in Coronado through July 26.
Both of the other productions utilized recently updated (in 2009) Puerto Rican dialogue and lyrics developed with Sondheim by Lin-Manuel Miranda; except for a part of “I Feel Pretty,” the Lamb’s production does not.
Comparisons are tedious, but let it be said that each production has/had numerous assets. Among those at Lamb’s are the Puerto Rican gang’s ladies, Maria (Olivia Hernandez) and Anita (Michelle Alvarez), the naturalistic and appealing choreography of Colleen Kollar Smith, the kaleidoscopic and fascinating costumes of Jeanne Reith, the solid fight choreography by Jordan Miller, and the extreme sense of intimacy with which the tragedy is imbued by director Deborah Smyth.
This is not to mention Lamb’s usual, fine orchestra (nine players including conductor/music director Patrick Marion), despite their rare tendency in this production to play too loudly for the singers and situations, particularly those of scenes steeped in intimacy.
Set in Manhattan in the summer of 1955, “West Side Story” explores the turf war between two teenage street gangs, the largely Polish Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Machismo is rife on both sides. Jets leader Riff (Jesse Abeel) initiates a “rumble” with the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Patrick Duffy). Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Hernandez), best friends with Bernardo’s girl, Anita (Alves), falls in love with Tony (Kevin Hafso-Koppman), a former member of the Jets, now employed by a kindly druggist named Doc (John Rosen, such an excellent actor).
Reith’s traditional costumes are beautifully displayed in the Dance at the Gym scene, with the spitfire Anita clad in purple with red undergarments, and the innocent Maria in white. It parallels the Shakespeare scene in which Romeo first meets Juliet. Mike Buckley’s set has the requisite balcony (fire escape) for wooing. It all works wonderfully.
Though Hafso-Koppman has a light voice, he uses it well and it is a perfect fit with Hernandez’s lovely soprano. Hernandez and Alves (who is an amazing dancer and singer, having played in the Broadway tour in 2012) provide the best scene musically, as the two young women reconcile, recognizing the truth and hope of real love.
The toughness-applied young men dance and sing well, though Duffy is sadly a bit long of tooth, giving the appearance of being home on a college break.
Though he wants nothing to do with the rumble, Tony attempts (as does Christopher Lennon’s Officer Krupke) to prevent the carnage; nonetheless, tragedy ensues. The entire show is accompanied by memorable songs such as “Maria,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “I Have a Love/There’s a Place for Us.”
No matter how many productions one sees, the ending of “West Side Story,” like Shakespeare, always reduces one to tears. Many leaving the matinee of Sunday, June 21, were seen wiping their eyes. This is a great means by which to introduce the young people in your lives to American classic musical theatre and to tie the form with the great classic dramatist who endures centuries later.