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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)

i was really disappointed in this production.
the 2 main actors (tony & maria) were Horrible! such bad acting!
anita, gladhand, doc, riff & a-rab were the best overall, acting, & where applicable, singing & dancing.
i was pleasantly surprised how fun the 'officer krupke' number came across...this has always been my least fave song of the play, but the cast (jets) really did a nice job here.
probably the best thing overall were the musicians in the pit...SUPERB!!

the spanish speaking didn't bother me one bit...in fact, it seemed natural to have the puerto ricans speaking in their native tongue...after reading some of the comments here, it seems to me that only non-bilingual people resent this revision.

Spent 500 for my family to go see this classic play in LA for Xmas...
Worst money spend on entertainment in my entire adult life!
Who are they kidding? This was like a College play or off off off Broadway - like in Jersey! This was horrible. OK I'll confess, we are New Yorkers, so blame me for that, we expected Broadway and did not get it. Off the bat... music was the most sterile I have ever heard - yes I am a musician and trust me I feel sorry for Leonard Bernstein who must be rolling over in his grave! The acting weak, the singing was OK - the male lead was the best, she was hideous! Dancing was also OK - reminded me of children's plays - how can this be - how can the Pantages Theatre allow such level - or are they all like this - my first time there!?
My children who are in the arts were so disappointed, my wife ughhh - it was a disaster of monumental proportions and in the end the clapping for the 2 stars was a reflection of it all - just ultra mediocre - not dignified for charging the big bucks. This will unfortunately leave a bad taste in my mouth for future LA plays - not even one tin star - it's a College play at best. Highly recommend you spend your money anywhere else!!!

Ohhhh forgot - we all speak Spanish too - and the accents on the "bilinguals" like there aren't enough in California to go round - give me a break and do not insult our intelligence - por favor! Dios mio!!!


Just saw the show tonight. I wish I had read the reviews beforehand. Unfortunately I agree w/ McNulty. I had good seats, couldn't really understand some of the lyrics, I know a little Spanish but not enough to fully understand the Spanish lyrics. I'm slightly under 50 so I remember the movie and one thing that wasn't mentioned as far as I know from any of the reviews was how gay most of the men seemed> I'm not homophobic, I loved Cage au Folles, the Bird Cage, saw the original in Paris, but these actor/singers in their tight shirts and tight jeans and lil' fem bodies didn't quite make me believe they were a bunch of hoodlums, was this cast primarily found in West Hollywood? I seem to remember the movie cast dressed better and looked more masculine, I'm going to have to rent it and see. Sometimes I wonder if the choreographer and costumer are gay, wouldn't be surprising, but looks like they made the production a gay's man dream. It kind of takes the cool out of the coolness of being a Jet.

We "ALL" totally agree with the review of Mr. McNulty. We saw the play on December 31st and we were very disappointed....It was an amateurish production lacking in emotion. We, too, could not wait for it to be over.

We were very bothered by the scenes that were predominately in Spanish (of which none of us understand). We wish that they would have left it like the original movie and play which we all loved while growing up.

Romeo and Juliette would "roll over" in their graves !!!!!

It was an expensive lesson. The Pantages should be embarrassed to put on such a " high school production" at these prices.

I am a lover of West Side Story since childhood. I have watched several productions over the years and this one was mediocre. I would have still enjoyed it were it not for the fact that a significant part of the dialogue was in Spanish. It was not advertised as such and I not only feel cheated but slighted too. What are non Spanish speakers supposed to do….bring a translator along? Should we now expect productions of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish and Russian, Phantom of the Opera in French Or Cats in meowspeak? For that matter why did Tony and his buddies not speak with each other in Italian or Polish (or whatever was the latest production flavor). I am tired of this political correctness and constant pandering to the Spanish speakers. Where does it stop? Do we not have a right to expect a production written in English to be rendered in the language of the original which ran from 1957 for 732 successful performances?

Been waiting to see this all my life..from the reviews sounds like i didn't miss much! I will wait for a better production..thanks>>>

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