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WEST SIDE STORY (National Tour)

WEST SIDE STORY (National Tour)

Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Dallas Summer Musicals

Directed by David Saint
Choreography reproduced by Joey McKneely
Scenic Design by James Youmans
Costume Design by David C. Woolard
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier

Reviewed Performance: 10/4/2011

Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Stephen Sondheim has been having one hell of a ride these past few years, both good and bad. In the "good" column, the current Broadway revival of his masterpiece FOLLIES has been bestowed with rapturous reviews. During the September 19-25 week run of the show, its box office take was $1,122,788. That figure is the highest weekly gross for any Broadway musical that features both music and lyrics by Maestro Sondheim. Sondheim has won Tony awards for BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL for his productions of WEST SIDE STORY (2010), A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (2009), COMPANY (2007), ASSASSINS (2004), and INTO THE WOODS (2002). His recent revivals of GYPSY (2008 & 2003), SWEENEY TODD (2005), and FOLLIES (2001) all received nominations for the same award.

In the "bad" column, the 2004 revival of PACIFIC OVERTURES, and his retooled version of THE FROGS (2002) both tanked on the great white way. Then just last month Sondheim wrote a scathing letter that was published in the New York Times, attacking the upcoming Broadway revival of PORGY & BESS. He was furious that Director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had added new scenes, changed some of the original dialogue, invented biographical details, and in a very drastic change, they created a more upbeat ending. Sondheim could not believe how they could change the original work created by the Gershwins.

As he stated in his letter, "I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret
plays and musicals in order to bring "fresh perspectives", as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting. Nor am I judging this production in advance, only the attitude of its creators toward the piece and the audience. Perhaps it will be wonderful." (Source: New York Times August 10, 2011). Suffice to say it's best not to face the wrath of the Sondheim!

This fall, Dallas Summer Musicals brings to the Music Hall one of Sondheim's greatest hits, the magnificent WEST SIDE STORY. The book is by Arthur Laurents who was known to be a temperamental diva and a monster if crossed. The splendid score is by the great Leonard Bernstein, while Sondheim penned the lyrics that were layered in rich subtext and character development. The final gem on the glittery crown of this original production team was the muscular, exploding choreography by Jerome Robbins. WEST SIDE STORY, the musical itself, has had four revivals since its original run in 1957. In 2009 it made its fourth revival, opening at the Palace Theater, going on to play 748 performances. The revival also recouped its $14 million investment after just running 30 weeks. This revival made Broadway history as the longest running production of WEST SIDE STORY.

Now its national tour has landed at the Music Hall.

I have seen countless versions of WSS, from the 1980 Broadway revival starring Debbie Allen, to several national tours, to various local productions all over the metroplex.

This new revival blows them all out of the water and is far superior to any other production of WSS that I have ever seen.

Why? Because this was the very first production that refused to shy away, water down, or "clean up" the graphic, harsh reality of teenage rebellion, fury, and racism. Every production I've seen steers away from the darker, brutal elements of the piece in fear of offending their audiences. By doing that you also lost the incredible subtext and impact of dark emotion that the piece screamed for. This current tour of the Broadway revival forced the audience to look at the horror and gritty ugliness of real life for these teens, and it made for heart pounding, remarkable theater.

Director David Saint and Choreographer Joey McKneely dissected each scene and number to release and discover incredible new life, subtext, and vitality with this production. The changes in both choreography and book actually elevated the material in ways that I had never seen in a version of WSS before.

It was a great relief that the tour kept one of the new changes that divided both audiences and critics of the recent Broadway revival - that of the Sharks speaking Spanish in both dialogue and lyrics. This created such dynamic emotion and realism for the Sharks. It helped greatly that many of the cast were actually Latino which meant that we did not have to sit through bad, forced Spanish dialects. The Sharks spoke in natural Latino dialects. This change completely grounded the piece in realism. It gave all the racial tension much, much more strength and believability.

Director Saint added many new, bold, thrilling changes to the material, making it so exciting to watch. The ending of the second act will completely blow you away. I had to choke back tears in the darkness as the curtain came down. It was not what was "usually" done. Instead, this ending Saint created fleshed out such dark subtext and emotion that it was spell binding. And that's how it was throughout the evening. Scene changes flowed seamlessly without a break in song or dance. When Tony found out about Maria's death, in a split second we went from the cellar at Doc's store to the alley.

Another new change was for the "Somewhere" ballet. This number always had a female voice singing this song off stage. For this production "Anybodys" (the lone female Jet gang member) sang the song. Brilliant idea, simply brilliant.

The rape of Anita had to be as realistic as possible. It should make you feel uncomfortable in your seat. Because of this rape, it gave Anita the hatred and rage to destroy Tony`s life. This scene was always watered down and "cleaned up" in past productions. It lost that powerful impact it demanded when directors did that. So I was floored with what Saint and his cast did for this scene. It was ugly, raw, graphic, frightening, and dove into the realism that caused gasps in the audience. But that's what it was supposed to do. I applaud Saint for making this scene be what it should be.

McKneely recreated Jerome Robbins' original choreography with superlative results. The choreography was just marvelous from the first snap to the final measure of music. The major dance numbers were eye-popping magic to witness - such as the gym dance, "America", "Cool", and the "Somewhere" ballet. But McKneely also added some of his own creativity into the choreography that was dazzling to observe. I've seen past productions in which casts either struggled with the choreography or the men were not masculine or looked as menacing as they should. Here they all did. The men ensemble danced with layers of machismo and masculinity. But what also made it so utterly thrilling was the execution of the choreography. Every ensemble member was in perfect sync.

Another complete turnaround change was the comedic number "Officer Krupke". This was always done as an over the top, sanitized, zany comedic number. Not here. In a remarkable change McKneely and Saint did keep the comedy at full tilt, but they also inserted graphic, nasty humor that a teenage thug would really say and do. I'm sure it will offend some, but for me I thought it was stellar. It was very funny but very adult-and it worked perfectly.

James Youmans' scenic design was perfection. One side was a massive decaying apartment building; the other was a wall of iron fire escape landings that we see in New York. Realistic, detailed set pieces for other scenes glided in and out and flew in with a whispering hush. David C. Woolard's costume design was flawless. He dressed the Sharks in hues of purple and lavender, while for the Jets it was jeans and touches of orange (their gang color we came to find out). The lighting design by Howell Binkley was stunning. The angles and special gobos designed for the production bathed the cast in what I like to call "emotional lighting". The lighting served as subtext and gave the emotions exposed on stage organic strength. Excellent examples of this emotional lighting design could be seen in such numbers as "America", the first act finale, "One Hand, One Heart", "Tonight" (Quintet), and especially in the "Somewhere" ballet.

The one flaw of the night was the sound. During some very key scenes and musical numbers the body mics popped, hissed, or created ear splitting feedback. Poor Tony had his body mic crack on his final note of "Something's coming" while Anybodys body mic went berserk during her beautiful solo on "Somewhere". Hopefully these body mic issues will be repaired immediately.

Any production of WSS has to cast true triple threat talent. But every production I had seen did not have this. Either some sang and acted great but couldn't dance very well or danced beautifully but couldn't act or sing. This national tour was loaded with triple threat talent! The ensemble was resplendent. Their acting was strong, truthful, and raw. Their singing was robust, and their dancing was out of this world freakin' extraordinary! Each of them was so committed and so in the moment that they made this production spectacular.

There were standout, impressive performances sprinkled throughout the cast. Several deserve special recognition. Delivering flawless work included Alexandra Frohlinger as Anybodys, Gizel Jimenez as Rosalia, Clay Thomson as A-rab, Christopher Rice as Baby John, Jon Drake as Action, Lori Ann Ferreri as Consuela, Kathryn Lin Terza as Fernanda, Stephen DeRosa as Glad Hand, and John O'Creagh as Doc.

German Santiago as Bernardo commanded the stage each time he stepped on. His subtext of such hatred towards the Jets and a country that did not want him there bled through his performance. When he spoke, some his dialogue in Spanish, it created a bold, striking new Bernardo that I had never seen before. You truly believed his leadership of the sharks and his hot passionate love for Anita. Santiago was fascinating to watch.

Michelle Aravena had to tackle a role that made Chita Rivera a legend and earn Rita Moreno an Oscar; that of Anita. She succeeded with astonishing results. First off the girl was a sexy, lush Latina vixen with a body that would make J Lo stay home and not hit the red carpet ever again. With a set of long legs, Aravena danced with exquisite refinement and feverish sensuality. Her version of "America" was one of the show-stopping numbers of the evening. Aravena possessed a powerful set of soprano lungs that brought all of Anita's songs to vigorous life. Finally there was her acting. When it came to the comedy, she nailed each punch line. I particularly loved how she took some of the lines and turned them into delicious femme fatale attitude with lascivious overtones. But when it came to the darker, dramatic arc of her character, Aravena was electrifying. Her second act work as an actress was remarkable. You only needed to watch how she attacked with deep, searing pain in the duet "A Boy Like That" as proof.

The subtext she displayed left you shattered. Then there was the rape scene. When I interviewed Chita Rivera (the original Anita), we discussed that scene. She told me that Jerome Robbins told the actors playing the Jets (unbeknownst to her) to viciously attack her, both verbally and physically; to ad lib racial slurs at her. Robbins wanted that scene to make the audience fear for Anita, but also see the seething racism. Rivera said there were times she would run off the stage after that scene and collapse in the wings sobbing. It was that real for her.

I believe Rivera would be quite pleased with Aravena's acting in that same scene. Aravena commanded and stole that scene with such tour de force acting and jarring realism that it punched you in the gut. You truly feared for her and you felt her hatred that it stayed with you long after the show was over.

Three performers made their opening night debuts in this national tour last night: Drew Foster as Riff, Ross Lekites as Tony, and Evy Ortiz as Maria.

Foster delivered a scene stealing performance as the leader of the Jets. His two major solos "Jet Song" and "Cool" were both big hits with the audience. Foster led the Jets with riveting stage presence. His dancing was athletic, masculine, and finely detailed to the very tip of his fingers. Foster took the role in a fresh, whole new direction that I found so interesting. His chemistry with Lekites was so strong and believable. You honestly felt that these were two best friends who were on different paths of their lives. You felt Riff's frustration and pain of losing his best friend which made him do anything to bring his best friend back into his life. Foster's subtext was rock solid within his acting. He was smaller in stature than some of the other Jets but because of the way Foster commanded and controlled the stage with his magnetic stage presence, you could see why he was a leader. Foster was another blinding talent that shined brightly within this talented company.

The stars of the evening and who stole the show were indeed Ross Lekites (Tony) and Evy Ortiz (Maria). You would never know this was their first performance on this tour by what you saw on the Music Hall stage last night. The chemistry between them was simply alluring, sublime, and very, very believable. The way they kissed, held each other, and looked at each other, you honestly believed the discovery of first love between these two actors. Lekites was a tall, very handsome actor, while Ortiz was a delicate, angelic girl with such a beautiful face that, with one look, would melt any man into a puddle. These two onstage painted such a compassionate couple that you could actually feel their love for each other.

The acting between both was encased in realism and the subtext was rich. Their acting choices throughout the evening never once came off false or lackluster. They both took the audience on an emotional journey that pierced through your heart. The balcony scene was by far the most romantic, sensual, and enchanting version that I had ever seen, and believe me I've seen many productions of WSS! When they first met at the gym, it was so romantic and innocent, Lekites and Ortiz were so in the moment that you forgot this was a stage musical.

The final element they brought was their singing. Lekites and Ortiz delivered the best singing I had ever heard when it came to Tony and Maria. Some Tonys struggled with the high notes of "Maria", while some past Marias I had seen screeched, and had unbalanced vibratos for Maria's high soprano notes. Lekites and Ortiz never once got near those vocal pot holes. Instead they sang with such exquisite, pristine, crystal clear, gorgeous vocals. Each of their solos and duets were like priceless gems. Their vibratos were in total control and their crescendos glided into their upper registers with effortless ease and strength.

Their harmonies were ethereal and perfectly balanced. Take for example "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart". Both duets were the best versions of these songs I had ever heard in my life.

In "Tonight", when it came to the final high notes, Lekites and Ortiz crested on each other's voice with a harmonious blend of voice, vibrato, and volume. It was pure musical theater magic. These two actors were phenomenal in this production and you will regret not seeing these two deliver stars-in-the-making performances.

This exploding, raw, rooted in graphic realism version of WEST SIDE STORY was the best production of this classic musical and surpassed every other. They did not water down the bleak, jarring reality and darker elements of the piece nor the racism. The use of actual Spanish dialogue gave it such vitality and strength, and for the first time gave the Latin culture an even playing ground within this musical.

This production did not steer away from showing the cruelty, brutal racial tension, and compelling lives these characters were struggling through. As Doc said in Act Two to the Jets after the rape, "You make this world lousy." To which Action coldly responded with, "That's how we found it."

WEST SIDE STORY (National Tour)
Dallas Summer Musicals
The Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210
Through October 23, 2011

Single tickets, priced from $20-$85, can be purchased at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane in the Preston Royal Shopping Center or at any Ticketmaster outlet. Tickets are also available by calling 1-800-982-ARTS or going online to

For groups of 15 or more, please call 214-426-GROUP.