Film release proves a tough act to follow even for engrossing ‘West Side Story’ on stage
Despite some creative constraints, the fundamentals of story and songs still work, and a middling version of something great is still pretty darn good.
Now is both the ideal and the worst time to be producing a stage version of “West Side Story.”
The iconic musical has a special spotlight on it, given the publicity surrounding the new Steven Spielberg film version, which earlier this week received a best picture Oscar nomination, and streaming release date of March 2.
Despite old assumptions that film versions would cannibalize stage show attendance, it’s pretty clear now that the opposite is true. Movies bring attention and create new fans, which, with “West Side Story,” is sure easy to do. It’s such a great, timeless tale of love and division, based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” made even greater by the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score.
When: Through March 27
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics early in his career, recently passed away, and even if he had never become the greatest musical theater composer of his era, he would still have been remembered and celebrated for these lyrical contributions alone.
So if there is attention based on both the movie and the death of one of its creators, and these will bring audiences both new and nostalgic, why is it also a problematic time to be producing “West Side Story?”
I tried to avoid too many while watching the Marriott Theatre’s production, but I have to say it was hard.
There’s plenty of good in this production, running through March 27. It’s true that very few people who attend the Marriott presentation will have seen other variations (except maybe the Spielberg remake or the 1961 Oscar-winning original), and first and foremost I should note that this is a decent version and don’t hesitate to catch it. It’s a truly great musical, and nearly any professional staging will deliver its message and its music with enough class to be engrossing. And the Marriott does provide that.
The show is well-cast (by far the hardest part of producing a show that demands triple-threat actor-singer-dancers). It’s capably directed by Victor Malana Moag, and acceptably choreographed by Alex Sanchez. It’s well-sung, particularly by Jake David Smith as Tony, Lauren Maria Medina as Maria, and Vanessa Aurora Sierra as Anita. And at moments, it’s quite brilliantly acted, most often by Chicago stage stalwarts Matt DeCaro, Bret Tuomi and Lance Baker, who take supporting roles and make a compelling case for enlarging them. Several younger cast members do well here, too. I was moved, for example, by the depth of conflict conveyed with silence and stillness by Marco Antonio Tzunux as Chino, holding a gun at the end and staring at Maria with a mixture of pity and disappointment, also knowing he’s just ruined his own life.
But an orchestra of nine is small for this show, and, as always with the Marriott, the musicians sit behind glass with the music coming in via a sound system. It’s just not that musically visceral.
And I was wondering how the show would be staged given the Marriott’s in-the-round configuration.
I was hopeful. This would need to be a more intimate version than others, more attuned to the emotional details, more specific in the dancing and character portrayals given the size and limitations of its stage. The shape and size of the stage necessarily limits the set to just a few pieces, and, more importantly, prevents the explosiveness of the dancing in a show that may have more choreography in it than nearly any other stage musical.
But I struggle to find anything particularly inspiring about this production. It doesn’t seem to bring any depth of creativity to the constraints. It just feels very contained in many ways.
The chemistry between Smith’s Tony and Medina’s Maria? It’s one-sided, with Medina providing personality and vitality and the conviction of love for both of them.
The set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec is clever, with high and low excerpts of fencing in the corners. I found myself more aware than usual of sight-line challenges, such as the short mannequins for the dress shop, or the light bulbs blocking faces during the crucial balcony scene.
The production reaches its nadir with the ballet of “Somewhere,” which envisions a dream of a happier, more harmonious existence. I was distracted by costume designer Amanda Vander Byl’s baggy resort-wear choices and by Sanchez’s nearly maypole-like take on the choreography. It was, sadly, on the cheesy side.
Fortunately for all, although these flaws prevent the production from soaring visually, musically or emotionally, the fundamentals of story and songs still work, and a middling version of something great is still pretty darn good.