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Theater review: 'West Side Story' at the Pantages Theatre

December 2, 2010 |  3:00 pm

West side story 1 

“West Side Story” is one of those vintage musicals that doesn’t need marquee names to reel in an audience. Its story (a midcentury Manhattan “Romeo and Juliet” by Arthur Laurents), its groundbreaking original staging and choreography (by Jerome Robbins) and its score (the collaborative fruit of Leonard Bernstein and a young Stephen Sondheim) provide all the star power anyone could want. The show is the headliner — the production is secondary.

But the revival that just descended on the Pantages in time to cash in on holiday box-office ca-ching is really pushing it. How mediocre is the production? There were moments during Wednesday’s opening night performance when someone would have had to pinch me to get me to remember that I was not in a high school auditorium.

This is what’s passing for the national tour version of the current Broadway production of “West Side Story.” Directed by Laurents (the world’s youngest nonagenarian), the New York revival was hardly one for the ages. It initially created buzz by serving up Spanish translations of some of Sondheim’s best known lyrics in an attempt to make the show grittier and more authentic. But the only truly memorable element was Karen Olivo’s Tony-winning turn as Anita, a thorny Spanish rose played with fierce ghetto-sexy showmanship.


West side story 2

David Saint directs this faded Xerox copy of Laurents’ production, and the clumsy opening sequence, in which gang members roam the stage like lost boys in need of a GPS navigator, lends the feeling of a desperate dress rehearsal. The choreography (Joey McKneely reproducing Robbins’ original hard-hitting ballet moves) is executed with what can only be called enthusiastic uncertainty. Not even the acoustics cooperate. 

Enter Tony, the show’s Romeo. Tough yet contemplative, he’s grown tired of the street warfare of the Jets, loyal as he remains to his neighborhood buddies, who are currently fighting with the Puerto Rican Sharks. There are many ways to play this character, but it’s probably not advisable to turn him into a walking Banana Republic ad.
Kyle Harris, as fresh-faced a Tony as you’re likely to encounter, seems out of place in the musical’s rough-and-tumble milieu (a college campus would be a much better fit). One could understand the casting of a pretty boy who was a superlative singer, but Harris lacks the necessary vocal range. He sounds just as you’d expect the genial glee club hunk to sound.
Ali Ewoldt plays Maria, the sister of Bernardo (German Santiago), the Sharks’ battle leader. A lithe, feminine, Juliet-like presence, Ewoldt has no trouble hitting her high notes during her duets with Tony. But she isn’t particularly persuasive in her dramatic handling of “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” She acts, then sings, then acts some more. Her fluidity improves when she’s performing “I Feel Pretty” in Spanish with her girlfriends. But the couple’s romantic moments are wooden, the stuff of carpentry class, not helpless, ill-starred amour. 

Anita, the role that made stars of Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, is a gift to an actress, and Michelle Aravena, all frizzy hair and low-budget fashion, tries to give the character a more realistic spin. It’s possible to imagine this clever young seamstress riding the subway without breaking into song while high-kicking around a pole. The just-an-ordinary-city-girl characterization has merit, and Anita’s frightening run-in with the Jets late in the show has a fresh ferocity. But such a purposefully contained approach can't rescue a production this lackluster.  
After a shaky start, the dancing grows in confidence, and the male cast members make Robbins’ leaps and twirls seem every bit as terrifying as they should. And say this for Saint’s staging, the “Gee, Officer Krupke” number comes off more naturally than it did under Laurents’ guidance. The wise-guy element infuses this vaudeville diversion from the dire plot with violent menace. 
“West Side Story” can rely on nostalgia addicts, who will be content simply to recall the musical theater’s halcyon days. And of course there will be newcomers who won't be able to resist the manifold theatrical seductions of this tragic love story. But Los Angeles deserves a better revival, and this classic isn’t doing itself any favors by showing up in stumblebum attire.

-- Charles McNulty


"West Side Story," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. For schedule information, visit www.BroadwayLA.org. Ends Jan. 2. Price: $25 - $100. www.BroadwayLA.org or 1-800-982-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes


Jennifer Love Hewitt, Vanessa Williams, James Denton at 'West Side Story' opening night

Photos: Top: National tour of "West Side Story." Bottom: Kyle Harris and Ali Ewoldt. Credit: Joan Marcus

Comments () | Archives (26)

Just curious, is this a non-union production?

Haven't seen this production of "West Side Story", but I have seen enough mind-blowing musical theater productions by local high schools that I must take umbrage at the initial slam in your review. To name a few of the schools that consistently produce first-rate, professional-caliber productions: Hamilton High School Music Magnet (check out the current show, "Into the Woods"), LA County High School of the Arts, and Huntington Beach Academy of Performing Arts. The incredible dedication of both teachers and students (not to mention parents) involved in these splendid high school productions deserve better than to be an example of awful performance standards!

I concur wholeheartedly with your review. I was there in the orchestra section with a party of 10 and you confirm our review "mediocre". The 18 and under crowd just didn't get it, which is really sad. I on the other hand, being slightly under 50 remember the original cast and couldn't wait for Tony and Maria to sing!!! I was truly disappointed. And, I had to nudge my neighbor several times as they dozed off. During the intermission I reflected with a lady who saw it as a teen in the 60s and she stated the performances were "lack luster".

One good thing I observed last night:

They did not fail to stick to the script.

I was there opening night, and everything this review detailed is spot on. Hate to say it, because you want to give credit to the actors just for getting up there and having the courage, but one must remember, this is the field they have chosen, which includes everything that comes with it.
Some of the Spanish spoken could of used a speech coach as some came across choppy and hard to understand (I am a Spanish speaker by the way).
This seemed like a "Twilight" generation cast ensemble.
There was absolutely no chemistry or believable romance between the two leads, and for a moment during the first act I did forget I was watching West Side Story.
Everyone knows the end is supposed to grab you with emotion, instead, I was just glad it was over.

I couldn't disagree more with the folks who've commented thus far as well as this reviewer. Having been a professional actor for many years, I've seen many productions of "West Side" and I thought this was the one of the best productions of the show that I've ever seen. The actors playing Tony and Maria bring an extraordinary sensitivity to their roles and David Saint (the director) has brought a fresh take to this classic show.
If you love this musical, ignore all these negative comments and check it out for yourself! I seriously doubt you'll be disappointed!

There's a weird lip or other obstruction along the front of the stage (footlights?), so you can't see the floor, the dancers' feet on the floor or the dead bodies on the floor unless you are in the back third of the orchestra section or in the balcony. Do you think that Jerome Robbins would have choreographed a dance musical if you couldn't see the floor?

I couldn't agree less with this review. What show did Charles McNulty see?? This is a beautiful production with wonderful performances. I have seen WSS four times and this was my favorite production ever! Don't listen to the reviewer and go see this show, it's worth your money and time!!

I just got back from the Friday evening show Dec 3. I understand where the LA Times reviewer is coming from but this is still the most professional production of this show I've ever seen.

Yes, Tony seemed too rural and couldn't quite balance the sensitivity with the tough guy of the character (all the Tonies I've seen seem to have this problem). Maria seemed a bit standard although her voice was wonderful, and Riff a bit too mild, and the supporting adult roles were unnecessarily disappointing. But the production itself was phenomenal, like the sets, music and choreography. It was gorgeous to look at and listen to. The Office Krupke number was inspired. All in all it was a very fun evening.

I concur with the reviewer. I saw the show on Friday night and I must say I was expecting a better performance and was slightly disappointed once it was over. Maybe the acting and other low points mentioned in the review will get better over time.

a professional critic i am not. My husband, my 15 & 9 year old attended saturday's show, & loved every second of it. I had read this review before going to the show & was expecting just what you had written, boy were you wrong! Was it perfect? no, but certainly enjoyable, & a wonderful opportunity to introduce young kids & teens to classic musicals. At a time, when theater, & musicals are struggling to bring audiences in, your scathing reviews don't help. Shame on you, not because you gave a bad review, but simply because you were dead wrong.

This strongly negative review was in the back of my mind while I waited for the curtain to go up on tonight's show. While the ending is certainly staged more bleakly than the film version (no cathartic coming together moment for the Jets and Sharks), this is clearly a director's decision by a director who is clearly in charge of a professionally produced, sung, acted, staged, and lit show.

We highly recommend you don't let this review deter you from attending!

This production of West Side Story is the greatest I have ever seen, and I have seen about a dozen versions over the years since the '60s. The show pays homage to the classic version, yet keeps it fresh. The energy level has the entire cast soaring to new hights. And the casting is perfection.
I have read the times piece, and I can not understand the nasty review. That sure wasn't the show I saw.

I just saw this performance last night and I certainly agree with the reviewer. I sat there waiting for it to get better and it never did. I love West Side Story and was looking forward to seeing this production, but was really disappointed in most of the performances. I don't think using Spanish during the production was useful.... I understand some Spanish, but was unable to follow a lot of the dialogue so if a person cannot speak Spanish, a good part of the play is lost.

Having never seen this musical staged (at a high school or otherwise) I found the experience to be sufficiently thrilling and glorious. This is a fine production of a stunning musical, beautifully staged, sung, danced, performed and played.

I guess if I was high brow, and had seen umpteen productions maybe I would be prone to being critical. While I found Tony out of step in appearances, and he had a nasty happen of spitting during his first solo, the rest of it came together rather well. Ali's singing was very solid, and I would have to give her the highest marks of anyone on the stage. I have to say that the gentleman that played Doc clearly demonstrated that age and experience on stage is a real plus - he was the most "real" person of the night - completely comfortable in his presentation. The theatre was pretty well occupied, and the crew received a standing ovation - enough said.

Absolutely, unequivocal correct take on this production of Westside Story. I deserve better because I work hard to earn the freedom to pay $48 to sit and watch a "Broadway" production. I didn't get that. Yes, yes to all the points listed by Mr. McNulty. If I wanted to be entertained by Highschoolers then I should pay price of admission as such. Shame to the Panteges Theater people. After the Phantom of Opera, this event was the black hole of my night-- quiet and void of any shade of joy.

Having read the article and reviews here, as well as on Goldstar events, I will not attend this road rendition of West Side Story. I was excited that WSS was coming to LA after missing the chance to see it 1 1/2 years ago in New York, when I wanted to introduce this seminal musical to my young daughters (who have seen the film, twice).

But enough intelligent, articulate, obviously theatre-loving people have cast a long shadow on the direction, acting, musicianship and rendition of this production. In particular the "modernization" of the show with the liberal use of Spanish, which has annoyed 90% of the review-writers.

No, I will not plunk down a few hundred dollars for our family of four to be roundly disappointed, even for the "excitement" of seeing the show live and hearing the songs I remember so well from childhood. WSS is probably the most beautiful musical ever conceived, precisely because of Bernstein's brilliant score, the drama, star-crossed love, and lack of a happy ending. Maybe Natalie Wood (Marnie Nixon!), Richard Beymer and Rita Moreno will remain my only experience of this story. One can do alot worse, like apparently this show.

And I forgot to add WSS's brilliance also lies in Jerome Robbins' groundbreaking choreography. It would be too painful to see Jets and Sharks who are muddling about on stage.

Charles McNulty....... I trust your reviews.

I also took my family hoping to see the story, the singing and dancing I so love. But I have to agree with Mr. McNulty, it was much like a high school musical. I think what bothered me most was in most of the scenes with the Puerto Rican cast, they were speaking Spanish. I do not speak spanish nor do my kids and therefore much of the play was lost in translation. It's a shame too because that dialog is cleaver, funny and important to the story. I do not recommend this particular production of New Side Story and feel the original should not be altered. For those of you who have writen that you enjoyed it, I can't help but think you must be realted to someone in the cast.

Saw WSS at the Pantages last night and I'm still in shock. Act 1 was bearable....changing half of "I Feel Pretty" to be sung in Spanish was annoying, but excusable, but what happened in act 2 was unforgivable. The most important lines in the show were said in Spanish. Neither I nor my friends knew what the hell was going on during the most emotional scenes of this "moving" show. I went home to review the original script just to make sure I had the story line correct, and the lines said in Spanish (PARTICULARLY in Maria's last scene with the gun) were somehow missing in original copy of the script that I found......do tell?!? Also interesting: the costume and choreography were unchanged from the original, but somehow the script needed changing.....who is responsible for the monstrosity of it all? I'm ready to ask for my money back. Next time a cast takes such liberties you owe it to your audience to let them know you have changed the script ESPECIALLY one as perfect as West Side Story. There is a reason it was written as it was...and the moving, important message of this beautiful story was completely thrown to the wayside for the sake of "modernization". UNFORGIVEABLE.

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