Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles follows its much lauded 99-seat production of the mammoth Ragtime with yet another challenge—staging the Jerome Robbins-Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim classic West Side Story with a 32-member cast and a 10-piece orchestra on a stage perhaps ¼ the size of most large theaters’.  The result is an intimate yet epic production which rates an A+ for ambitiousness and a solid B for execution, and one which confirms MTLA’s promise as a young and daring new musical theater company.

This updated Romeo And Juliet set on the mean streets of New York City may seem tame compared to the gang warfare flashed on today’s TV screens, but its tragic tale of star-crossed lovers remains as powerful as ever, and one that is played out daily whether by rival gangs in America’s inner cities or by Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East or by Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Only someone with a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the love which ignites between born-in-the-USA Tony and recent Puerto Rican arrival Maria one fateful night at a high school gymnasium—only to be extinguished just a day later on the streets of New York.

MTLA’s production’s greatest assets are its talented and (mostly) young triple-threat performers, under the capable direction of Kenneth Gray-Scolari, from the show’s leads to its “character” adults to the female dance ensemble to the rival Jets and Sharks, who seem more like real inner-city kids than performers. 

As is so often the case in a West Side Story staging, the breakout performance is given by the actress lucky enough to be cast in the plum role of Anita, girlfriend of Sharks leader Bernardo. Rita Moreno won an Oscar for the role, Chita Rivera and Debbie Allen played her to raves on Broadway, and Marie Eberline was recently cited by StageSceneLA for Best Performance By A Featured Actress in the same role. Here, Anita is brought to blazing life by an absolutely superb Janet Krupin, who puts the fire in spitfire with her sizzling rendition of “America” and tears your heart to shreds with “A Boy Like That.” Equally stellar as a dancer and a singer, Krupin scores high marks too for her gut-wrenching acting in Act 2’s graphically staged “Taunting.”

As Maria, Laura Darrell is simply splendid, singing such now classic ballads as “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and (especially) “I Have A Love” in a gloriously pure soprano. As an actress, Darrell shows us Maria’s innocent joy at finding true love as well as the flames that burn just under her sweet exterior. When Maria lashes out at the warring gangs in the show’s devastating final scene, Darrell proves herself to be an actress of depth and passion.

Though Clint Carter, as Tony, is not in Darrell’s league as a singer, his performance is nonetheless a fine one, the actor making us believe and trust in Tony’s sincerity and innate goodness.  Carter’s superb ballet training (and physique) are both evident in a beautifully danced pas de deux in Act 2’s “Ballet Sequence.”

Performance-wise, West Side Story is slanted in favor of the Jets, whose characters are given more stage time and are more clearly delineated.  Jesse Jensen (Riff) and Clayton Shane Farris (Action) are particular Jet standouts, but the entire gang—Tom Haake (A-Rab), Josh Heisler (Baby John), Anderson Reid (Big Deal) and Richard Sharrah (Diesel)—shine in a delightfully performed “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Kalin Coates scores too as feisty would-be Jet Anybodys, whose only failing is her gender.

Among the Sharks, Benjamin Marquis makes the strongest impression as a fierce and entirely believable Bernardo, the gang’s leader, and Joey Acuna, Jr. has powerful moments as Maria’s intended, Chino. 

The rest of the Sharks (Rafael Rojas, James Ward III, Frankie Sandoval, Stephen Anglin, and Carlo Morelli), the Jets’ Girls (Casey Wilson, Bonnie McMahan, Brooke Seguin, and Chelsea Cyan Brim), and the Sharks’ Girls (Tania Possick, Amanda Ewing Vitiello, Sarah Rosenbloom, Leslie Morrero, Annette Sintia Duran, and Patty Buathong) make for a fine ensemble, exhibiting real dance talent in “Dance At The Gym” and Act 2’s ballet. 

Speaking of dancing, the original West Side Story featured revolutionary choreography by Robbins, which I have been told comes as part of the West Side Story package, with choreographers required to “restage” or “replicate” Robbins’ original dances.  Here, Arthur L. Ross receives full credit as choreographer and does mostly impressive work, especially in the gym dances (Mambo, Cha-Cha, etc.), which pulsate with Latin fever, and in the lovely balletic moves of the Act 2 dream sequence.  Gone, however, are the breathtaking signature Robbins leaps of the show’s prologue sequence, and they are missed.

Besides an appropriately youthful (and amusing) Nick Campbell as dance chaperone Glad Hand, MTLA made a wise decision in casting above the company’s young median age for the “adult” roles.  James Petrillo (Krupke), George Mackey (Cop) and a particularly real and moving Paul Zegler (Doc) look and seem absolutely right for their parts. Lindsay Day makes a brief but memorable Act 2 appearance singing an exquisite “Somewhere” during the dream ballet.

Director Gray-Scolari makes effective use of the Hudson’s wide stage, and stages the gang confrontations with palpable tension. 

Greg Haake leads an almost unheard of (in a 99-seat theater) 10-piece orchestra which, although not of CLO quality, nonetheless permits the full orchestrations which Bernstein’s music deserves. Fernando Vasquez’s sound design provides a good mix of voices and instruments, though the Hudson’s sound system tends to distort the women’s higher notes.  Lighting by Jeffrey Porter and Chris Osborne is a bit hit and miss, sometimes very effective as in Tony and Maria’s first meeting in the gym, sometimes less so as in “America,” which casts a too dim light on the front row of dancers. Paul Doble’s set is the barest of bare bones—a black curtain, a platform, and a balcony. While this makes sense in a small theater and focuses attention on the performances and performers, it does give the show a bit more of the air of a workshop than a fully staged production. On the other hand, Rosalie Alvarez’s costumes are absolutely first-rate. The boys have just the right 1950s look, and the Jet Girls’ costumes have a far more “white bread” look than the Shark Girls’ colorful Latino dresses.

Other West Side Story’s may have more spectacular dancing or the kind of sets that only big budgets can provide. This West Side Story has youthful energy, passion, and commitment on its side, making the final product well worth a look-see, and making one eager to see what new challenge Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles will undertake in the New Year.

Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
November 28, 2008

West Side Story has reopened following a month-long hiatus, with numerous additions to its cast and the promotion of Arthur L. Ross from choreographer to director/choreographer.  The resulting production is, I am delighted to report, considerably better for the changes. Derek Lux combines leading man good looks and a fine tenor to make Tony any young girl’s fantasy, and opposite him (this weekend only) Kaitlyn Casanova (a young Natalie Wood) makes for an exquisite Maria with a voice to match. (The splendid Laura Darrell returns to the role next weekend.) StageSceneLA favorite Nathan Frizzell is a dynamic, charismatic Riff and a very good dancer to boot, and Luis Jose Lopez, besides being a fine actor, gives Bernardo the sex appeal the role deserves. Among the “adults,” Richard Lewis Warren joins the cast as a wise and moving Doc.  Returning cast members (particularly the entire band of Jets) remain scene-stealers, and the divine triple-threat Janet Krupin continues to give the evening’s standout performance as Anita. (Additions to the ensemble—Desiree Abeyta, Fernando Christopher, Booter Griffin, Greg Hardash, Heather Langham, Beth Macquies, Allan Penales, Katrina Rennells, Nico Rennells, Elisa Richter, Dana Tomasko, Claudia Vasquez, and  Marina—are equally fine.) Ross’s already dynamic dances are crisper, and the balcony scene has been restaged for added effectiveness. The opening number may still be somewhat of a disappointment to those expecting Jerome Robbins’ signature leaps, and tonight’s orchestra could have been stronger, but overall this is a much improved West Side Story which now merits a StageSceneLA WOW!

–Steven Stanley
January 25, 2009

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