Since its New York premiere in September 1957, “West Side Story” has both faced its share of challenges and provided them. Censors objected to some of the libretto's language while early audiences tended to be more puzzled than dazzled by the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired musical.
Far more striking were the demands composer Leonard Bernstein placed on his young cast: his songs were far more complex metrically and harmonically than anything heard on Broadway to date. Jerome Robbins also stretched the dancers' choreographic abilities.
Today, however, the language of “West Side Story” has become so assimilated among musical theater performers that its challenges are no longer so monumental. But it remains a tough musical to cast, to sing, to dance and to pull off successfully with the required emotional content.
For its 2012-13 season finale, Celebrity Attractions brings “West Side Story” back to Oklahoma City for the first time since November 1997. But this Troika Entertainment production, which is based on the 2009 Broadway revival, could best be characterized as “West Side Story” lite — a version that cuts too many corners, makes curious script changes and puts an undernourished orchestra in the pit.
“West Side Story” has always been a challenging musical to stage because its central characters — Tony, a member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the Sharks' leader Bernardo — need to be, or at least, appear to be young. But it's difficult for young performers to summon the necessary acting skills to make their forbidden romance fully believable.
Addison Reid Coe (Tony) and MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) could both benefit from some critical vocal coaching. Both experienced pitch issues which left many of their vocal numbers musically lacking.
As Tony anticipates the excitement of his future in “Something's Coming,” Coe frequently lapsed into sotto voce (cutting back on vocal volume for dramatic emphasis), an approach that created short phrases instead of an overreaching arc.
Grisso possesses a small but attractive voice that when combined with an impetuous behavior, created a Maria that seemed too frivolous rather than passionate. In the show's glorious “Tonight” duet, Coe and Grisso's voices sounded more like two solos than a satisfying vocal blend.
Director David Saint clearly impressed on his cast the need for characterizations filled with youthful ardor and abandon but many cast members took that suggestion too far which resulted in portrayals that bordered on the frenetic.
Michelle Alves' Anita was suitably sultry and seductive but she too wasn't completely solid in regard to pitch. Bernstein's glorious score frequently soars — never more impressively than in the “Tonight” quintet — but to do so, every cast member must be vocally reliable. In this production, those shortcomings left too many of the musical numbers earthbound.
The Jets, Sharks and their respective band of girls generally provided fine support for the principals, most notably, Carolina Sanchez as a feisty and scene-stealing Rosalia. Theo Lencicki (Riff) and Thomas Mothershed (Doc) made fine impressions despite their limited stage time.
Having the character Anybodys sing the second act ballad “Somewhere” was in direct conflict with the script — it's usually sung by an offstage singer, often by the character Consuela. The number failed to achieve its dramatic effect due in large part to Melanie Wildman's unconvincing performance.
This production also made use of a dramatically reduced orchestration — 11 musicians, less than half the specified number. That resulted in a thin sound that only suggested the flavor of Bernstein's rich score instead of fully realizing it.
With its basis in Shakespeare's celebrated tragedy about two mismatched lovers, “West Side Story” must resonate emotionally to be successful, something this cast rarely managed to achieve. Without that gravitas, one was left with a Cliff Notes version of a musical theater classic.
— Rick Rogers