WEST VALLEY CITY — There is something special about a memorable ending to a musical or play. The rest of the production can have flaws, but if the show can leave the audience with an impactful finish, then the audience can walk away having a great experience. Such is the case with West Side Story currently playing at the West Valley Performing Arts Center. It is not a perfect production, but the casting is so good and other elements so unique that I left the theatre feeling like I had witnessed something special.
West Side Story, is of course, one of the icons of musical theater. Written in 1957 with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, the musical takes the Romeo and Juliet story and moves it to the Upper West Side of New York City of the 1950s. Immigrants from Puerto Rico (in a gang called the Sharks) have moved into the borough and local hoodlums in a gang called the Jets do not appreciate them invading their turf. As the two gangs battle for ownership of the space, Tony (a Jet) falls in love with Maria (the sister of the leader of the Sharks), but the hate of those around them fights against their happiness. Accompanying this drama is some of the most beautiful music ever written for the stage, with classic songs like “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere.”
The tricky thing about West Side Story is making the love connection feel real and believable when it all happens so quickly. This is especially true for Maria, who has such tunnel vision at the end that she still yearns to be with Tony, even after a gang fight that killed her brother. Perhaps Maria’s youth explains some of her foolish decision making. Nevertheless, the relationship between Tony and Maria has to be compelling in order for the show to work, and that is what WVPAC gets the most right in their retelling of West Side Story. Maxx Teuscher and Samantha Paredes are so good as Tony and Maria (respectively) and have an undeniable chemistry with each other. In the scene at the dance where they first meet, the two kiss a lot (even though they do not even know each other’s names yet), but it feels believable because that connection is instantly there. Teuscher and Paredes are also capable of mastering the challenging musical numbers, Paredes having the more classical soprano voice and Teuscher giving his singing more a rock feel to it. His entire portrayal of Tony has an edge to it that is not typically seen in West Side Story. He has tattoos and wears a white tank top for much of the show that gave me “Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire vibes.” Because the two characters are from different gangs, their contrasting singing styles made sense and merged well together.
Sophia Morrill Mancilla gave a strong and splendid performance as Anita. Mancilla has the appropriate sass for “America” and the vocal chops for the “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” number. Her acting is excellent throughout, but especially in her final scene where she tells the Jets, “If one of you was lying in the street bleeding, I’d walk by and spit on you.” It is an unforgettable moment of theatre.
The other aspects of the production helmed by director Izzy Arrieta did what they needed to do to support the lead actors’ performances, but were not as spectacular as what is normally seen on the WVPAC stage. The choreography by Ben Roeling was simple but effective. The most impactful dancing is when the whole cast is on stage like for the dance at the gym or in the “Somewhere” ballet. The costumes by Alicia Kondrick lean into the 1950s aesthetic with rolled up jeans for the boys and tea length dresses for the girls. There were times when the clothes and staging choices for the gangs gave a bit of a nerdy vibe to the gangs, which (especially compared to the tough edge of Tony) was an interesting choice and made the main couple stand out.
Likewise, Adam Flitton‘s sets were minimalistic. For example, Doc’s store was simply a cart of magazines and fruit. The dress-shop is represented by one cart of dresses, a sofa, mirror, and desk. The lighting by Savannah Garlick is also simple until the “Tonight” sequence, where the sky fills with stars to symbolize the lovers’ new hope for the future.
The reason why the simplicity stood out is WVPAC has often had such impressive and elaborate visual elements. Previous shows at the venue, like Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors, had seriously grand sets and dazzling visual elements. It is not clear that the simplicity of the visual style of West Side Story is a design choice or a budget choice; however, keeping things minimal helps focus on our leads and on the love story — which was the best and most important part of the play.
The production does have its weak moments. The pacing of West Side Story could be faster. There were also some what I bet are mostly opening night jitters at WVPAC, with a few microphone issues and one spot where the music completely stopped in “Tonight” and the cast waited for it to come back. There are also times when the ensemble acting could use improvement and when the dancing felt a little labored.
Despite these flaws, the connection between Maria and Tony is palpable and when she says, “Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!” tears were streaming down my eyes. It was so emotionally true and profound. How could I not cry? That moment of truth is worth a visit to the West Valley Performing Arts to see West Side Story. So, get your tickets now. (Additionally, the original Romeo and Juliet opens at the Parker Theatre on Saturday. Attending both productions may be a fun experience for theatre fans.)