Are there any opening notes in musical theater more iconic and instantly recognizable than those of West Side Story? No matter the iteration, the story and music are classic enough to have endured the test of time, resulting in a rare musical where you can hear a ripple of excitement in the audience at the beginning of almost every song. Despite adept work across the board, however, the current production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts ultimately feels uninspired.
The story, inspired by Romeo and Juliet, follows Tony (Eddie Egan) and Maria (Ashley Marie), star-crossed lovers stuck on opposite sides of a racially charged gang turf war. Their tragic, doomed romance unfolds over the course of two days in 1957 New York City. With a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and original conception and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it has been a staple of the musical theater canon for 60 years, and as such remains a perenially popular choice for theaters worldwide.
Prior to opening this production, director Richard Israel teased a “fresh take,” hoping to capitalize on the current political climate by highlighting the theme of discrimination that is so central to the story. Updated choreography by John Todd was meant to modernize the movement, but ultimately nothing felt like anything I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps I was spoiled by seeing the 2009 Broadway revival twice, which while not without its problems approached the story from a different angle by weaving Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the book and songs (Lin-Manuel Miranda handled the translations). This was not entirely successful and producers chose to pull back on the amount of Spanish in the show later in the two year run, but it still felt fresh, and very emphatically highlighted the cultural differences at the heart of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. Then again, when a show has undergone 60 years of productions and interpretations, at what point is there no longer anything untapped to discover?
As always at La Mirada, the production value and performance quality was generally high, with the exception of a few unfortunate mic issues in act one, which was also a problem at the last show I attended. While the choreography and dancing were spirited, several numbers seemed designed to mask the shortcomings of those in the large 32-person cast who were singers first and dancers a distant second. In the lead roles, Egan and Marie had fine chemistry and made you believe in their ludicrously fast-moving love connection. While Egan occasionally struggled with the demanding vocal score, he looked the part of the leading man, making a character who is frustratingly idealistic and a bit dense as written seem appealing. Marie, whose clear soprano flutters effortlessly from her tiny frame, was lovely, making “I Feel Pretty” a highlight of the performance. As Anita, Maria’s best friend, Marlene Martinez was the vocal standout of the cast, and arguably has the best emotional arc to play with. Her act two argument/duet with Maria, “A Boy Like That”/”I Have a Love” has always been a favorite of mine, and the two women did a fantastic job of conveying their complex emotions. Also worth mentioning is the humorous Jets number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a comedic highlight that allowed the ensemble to shine.
It is almost difficult to pinpoint what exactly prevents this production from taking the step from adequate to excellent, but the magic is just not quite there. The thing is, there is an opportunity for themes and moments in this show to remain extremely relevant and timely decades later. For example, “Somewhere,” when Maria and Tony, devastated by all that has happened, dream of a better world where they could be together, a world where different cultures and ethnicities live in harmony, should be a real gut-punch of a moment, but it lacks energy and the staging and simple set are too ambiguous, almost making it unclear that it’s a fantasy sequence. It doesn’t help that much of the song is not sung by the two leads. Moments like this feel like a missed opportunity to do something memorable or innovative with the staging to add a new layer to a poignant moment. Without one, this West Side Story is just a pleasant stroll through familiar territory.
West Side Story runs at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through May 14th. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes including one intermission. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased at www.lamiradatheatre.com.