Los Angeles Theater Review: WEST SIDE STORY (La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts)

by Frank Arthur on April 28, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: WEST SIDE STORY (La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts)

A SUBURBAN WEST SIDE STORY

Sadly, hate conquers all in West Side Story, but the love we see and feel can hold its own. Though over a half-century old, the Bernstein/Laurents/Sondheim/Robbins tour-de-force is, like its Shakespearean source, young as first love. You don’t revive it, you detonate it, as happens repeatedly in La Mirada’s mixed production that has winning leads, but hit-and-miss direction and design. It attempts to be a hybrid of productions old and new, but hasn’t arrived at something new. Yet for all my issues, I still recommend a look-see; this is the musical that just keeps giving.

Bernstein packed coiled energy into every song, alternating the testosterone territoriality of these gangs of New York with “Tonight” and “Somewhere,” ballads that are radiant with other-worldly beauty. The musical walks the edge between stinking streets that threaten instant death and the unearthly idealism of Tony and Maria, who enjoy two days of eternity. The extremes here are too different not to destroy each other.

Strangely enough, West Side Story feels more dated than Romeo and Juliet, its 500-year-old inspiration. Quaint juvenile delinquents compared to today’s drive-by gangster-wannabes, the Jets and Sharks request each other’s permission to use switchblades at their rumble: Their worst epithets are “pow, pow!” “buggin” or “Krup you!” Compared to Shakespeare’s dedicated tragedy, the musical is also less violent, claiming only three lives to the Bard’s five. More trenchantly, both works proclaim the power of love to consume and to cure. Powerfully enacted, they unleash a ton of energy, especially given the necessity for young casts.

It seemed at first that Richard Israel’s busy staging intended this production to be desultory, perhaps as a way to give this timeless piece a feeling of immediacy, and often that works well: “Officer Krupke” and the second act molestation soared because the actors’ movements, while definitely staged, looked as if these street thugs were truly improvising their way through life. But the roughness of this Story is both a detriment and a boon. There’s no shortage of talent on the stage, and many of the leads are marvelous, but the lack of character nuance and inability to tell the rival gangs apart by dance and design makes this feel like community theater on steroids.

The usual chain-link fence, ironwork and rolling scaffolding serve their purpose to represent the streets of New York, but a few of Stephen Gifford’s set pieces (a stairwell, a table) were actually wobbling on opening night. Steven Young offers effective lights, especially during for sprawling school gym where the hormonal lovers meet, as well as vacant lots where the gangs clamber over chain-link fences to rampage at will. Often, Thomas G. Marquez’s costumes don’t seem character-driven; many of the gang’s outfits looked like they just arrived from Bye Bye, Birdie, and as mentioned earlier, there has to be something that helps us differentiate between gang members. And Katie McCoy’s wigs were painfully and obviously wigs.

John Todd’s choreography is the least faithful to the sexy strutting of Jerome Robbins’ original dances that I’ve seen, emphasizing the athleticism over the romanticism of these violent mash-ups. He does his job, but there is a lack of poetry. He tries to mash up ballet with gymnastics and modern, and ends up with movement being too fast-paced and confusing in large group scenes. Also, the dancers were often gasping for breath, and a few times the men had trouble lifting the women. Saddest of all was the “Somewhere Ballet,” which was anything but. (The strangest moment of the night: during the ballet, the offstage solo female singers sounded like out-of-place girls auditioning for Children of the Corn.)

Still, the hot, young troupe tears into the kick-ass gang-banging of the anthemic “Jets Song,” and the sure-fire storytelling behind every movement in “America” is matched by the almost scary youthfulness that bursts through the seams of this engaging cast. The songs, well coached by Brent Crayon, feel as inevitable as the story.

Pole-axed by passion, both Eddie Egan and Ashley Marie redefine infatuation in a hundred different ways. Mercurial Egan, his solid tenor matching his looks, brings ardent impetuosity to his gangbanger-next-door, playing Tony as if, yes, “Something’s Coming” but he can’t tell what: Playing the moment is the only way to do Tony. A vision in white, Marie’s Maria is a Madonna who—having to grow up fast—prefers to be un-immaculate, reconfirming true-believing Maria’s awesome hopefulness (“I Feel Pretty”), bringing a sweet soprano to this vulnerable survivor.

Surrounding the lovers with the right—or wrong—hate, Michael Starr’s rough-and-ready Riff is a spunky contrast to Armando Yearwood, Jr.’s Bernardo, but Yearwood’s self-defeating machismo and complete lack of anger management didn’t seem right for the lead of a gang—he would have been better as a follower-turned-hater like Chino (Dino Nicandros). Marlene Martinez’s kinetic Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, struggles to rise above that hate; the powerful Martinez nobly captures the strong woman’s ambivalence.

Finally, a salute to the timelessness of this work. This West Side Story doesn’t hit you in the gut, but we definitely leave understanding that things may be better now than in 1957, but this world, it seems, will not permit the perfect diverse communities we all dream of.

photo by Jason Niedle

West Side Story
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on May 14, 2017
for tickets, call 562.944.9801 or visit La Mirada Theatre

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Manny Zack May 8, 2017 at 4:08 pm

“During the ballet, the offstage solo female singers sounded like out-of-place girls auditioning for Children of the Corn.”

Thank you for making me laugh today!

P.S. This reminds me of a Performance Riverside production of Dreamgirls I saw quite a few years ago. The stars on stage were good but the pit singers (an essential part of the original vocal arrangements) were often off key.

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Tom Regis May 11, 2017 at 5:01 pm

Speaking of horrible wigs, the wigs in the La Mirada production of Dreamgirls were equally absolutely hideous. ALL the men had James Brown wigs. I can understand Jimmie Earlie having a James Brown wig but everybody?

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