By Tina Arth
When Broadway Rose produces one of my all-time favorite musicals, of course I expect to enjoy it, so it was no surprise to me that I loved the opening night performance of West Side Story. However, I was caught off-guard by the sheer beauty of this production, which left me (and many other people) in tears at the final curtain as I joined the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation. Of course, the show has a flawless pedigree: concept and choreography by Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim – all with a bloodline that traces directly to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
It makes no sense to me to call West Side Story “dated.” The slang, clothing, attitudes and ambience are very much tied to the immigrant gang culture of New York City in the early 1950s, and the story is told through the xenophobic lens of the era (not so different from our own?). Like their Shakespearean predecessors, Tony and Maria are star-crossed lovers, determined to wed despite the ferocious social pressures of their families and peers; like Romeo and Juliet, they consummate their love but come to a tragic end. West Side Story is not the first Broadway musical to use love’s blindness to illustrate the deeply rooted racism within American culture (notably, think 1949’s South Pacific) but, unlike its theatrical predecessors, it builds the entire story around this theme, and puts its focus on the irony of our newest immigrants being demonized by those who arrived only one generation earlier.
The challenge of doing justice to a show with such a powerful story and distinguished lineage is intensified by the need for young performers, as all but a few characters are in their late teens. However, Director Peggy Taphorn, Music Director Alan D. Lytle, and Choreographer Jacob Toth) and their cast are more than up to the task. The choreography has a few surprises, especially the male ensemble. In place of “America’s Got Talent” style dance crew synchronicity, these Jets and Sharks are distinguished by an athleticism and raw energy that eloquently tells the story of their adolescent frustration. Houston import Austin Arizpe (“Bernardo”) provides the focal point for the show’s anger and angst; a world of hurt that he cannot express in words explodes from his leaping, high-kicking performance. Another dance surprise is the exquisite ballet sequence by Mia Pinero (“Maria”) – instead of relying on an outside ballerina, she does her own exquisite dancing and leaves the “Somewhere” vocal to an amazing off-stage vocalist (Amber Kiara Mitchell).
While the dance is engaging and evocative, it’s the overwhelming solo and ensemble vocals that move this West Side to the highest level. Mia Pinero and Andrew Wade (“Tony”) move seamlessly through some of the most beautiful love songs ever written, and their duets are spine tingling. Pinero perfectly captures Maria’s otherworldly innocence, and Wade is utterly believable as her partner in a world inhabited only by the two lovers. Kayla Dixon (“Anita”) is a stunning spitfire, a fine dancer, and a spectacular singer – her work with Beknar Bermudez (“Rosalia”) and the rest of the Sharks’ girls in “America” is sharply humorous – a treat for the eyes and the ears, and as good a rendition of this number as I have seen.
The uniform strength of the cast means that it’s difficult to select other individual performances, with one exception. The adults in West Side Story are mostly one-dimensional and tend to be played that way, but Mark Pierce (“Doc”) brings some real depth to his character, especially in Act II. His “Doc” is sensitive, fair, and loving, and his anguish at being unable to change the world around him shines through.
In case I’ve been too subtle – this show is remarkable, powerful, beautiful, moving, and definitely worth a few hours out of the life of anyone with even a hint of appreciation for musical theater. Don’t delay buying tickets – many performances are already almost sold out, and those who wait will miss out on something spectacular.
Broadway Rose’s West Side Story runs through July 24th at Tigard High School’s Deb Fennell Auditorium.