KAYSVILLE — West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, has been an emotional favorite of audiences since entering the scene in 1957. It also has not been without controversy, and although I deeply love it, I went to the Hopebox production with cautious anticipation because of a few fears of potential casting mistakes that are not completely unfounded. My own local high school in the 90s did the show and encouraged the people cast as Sharks to “go tanning” to get the right “aesthetic” and even the great Rita Moreno in the 1961 film adaptation was forced into heavy brown makeup despite her Hispanic heritage.
I was quite pleased with the careful casting choices of directors Jan Williams and Chris Thomas. In the current theatrical world, with the great players all over the state of Utah, I feel it is essential not to choose to do a show unless you have the appropriate actors to pull off that show. Some shows can and should have blind casting, but when the race or heritage of a character is essential to the plot, it is vital that it be honored in the casting. The diversity in the cast of West Side Story is undeniable in the plot, and this diversity was honored.
One of the most complicated parts of a production of West Side Story, which is a romance ala Romeo and Juliet set in the turf wars of the 1950s gentrification of the West Side of New York City, is the combination of fighting and dance choreography. Done well, this combination can be a visual masterpiece. Done poorly, it can be chaotic. The production team at Hopebox has made a wise choice to employ fight choreographer Justin Lee to partner with choreographer Heather Sessions to make these scenes move seamlessly and be the iconic dances the audiences expect. In this production, there was an added ballet scene that I had not seen interpreted quite this way before, and it was quite moving.
Costume design, by Williams and Emmaleigh Stringham, added to the strong production elements of West Side Story. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the clear separation of the Jets and the Sharks in subtle yet interesting ways. The colors used by the Shark women were so vibrant and exciting, showing the energy expected when reaching the climatic number, “America,” that it felt like the costumes were almost a character in the show. Anita’s dress in particular, with its black netting and floral overlay, was different than any other Anita I had ever seen yet fit the character so well that I not only loved the costume choice, I truly wanted that dress for myself.
Speaking of Anita, the character, played by Yamileth Campos, may have been the true standout of the evening. Campos had a charisma that almost entered the stage before her. During the Mambo dance scene at the gym, I found myself continually watching her in the crowd, because she moved so gracefully and showed exceptional skill. This magnetism was amplified in both of her well known numbers, “America,” and, “A Boy Like That.” Maria, played by Savannah Ruiz, had a crystal clear soprano voice, essential for this role, and a quaint innocence about her. One impressive thing about Ruiz’s innocence was the final scene of the show, where Ruiz has to show intense anger and hurt. I found myself wondering throughout the show if Ruiz could pull it off, because of how young and naïve she seemed, but she impressed me with her authenticity. These were counterbalanced by a very edgy Bernardo, played by Austin Boonchan, a community favorite who has been acting in this area since a child and has truly aged into a fine dramatic actor.
It is an interesting social commentary to see how shows like West Side Story have aged. The cast performed the song, “Officer Krumpke,” extremely well, and it is at a part when the show has gotten so heavy that the humor feels so needed. However, it was almost telling to watch a group of young men quickly finding one thing after another to blame why all of these horrible things were happening. And I am not sure I had ever really caught before with such thought one of the lines by Doc, played by Justin Cook, when he is asking them why do they just keep killing and killing, and when will it be enough? Looking at the news today, the choices people make, and the laws in the land, it hit differently this time.
The set appears to have been a reuse of Newsies scaffolding, which honestly, for community theater, was somewhat ingenious. Designer J.D. Madson did a fine job working with Projection designer Danielle Tenerelli to combine new elements of projection with the scaffolding that was likely easily borrowed from the several productions of Newsies mounted last summer.
It has been 65 years since West Side Story was first written. I hate that we still are dealing with all the same issues brought up in this show today, and that it is unfortunately still relevant.