I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings about Broadway revivals as a general rule. I really love the innovation of new productions and feel that too often, classics re-made fall short of their iconic originals, or to quote my grandfather, “Do it right, do it well, and move on.” However, when the national touring production of WEST SIDE STORY made its way to the OHIO THEATER last night, I embraced the opportunity to re-visit this 1957 Arthur Laurents’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s “ROMEO AND JULIET” and experience the delight of what is truly timeless about classic musical theater.
The set is alarmingly simple- rarely more than one or two pieces on stage for a scene- which helps to focus attention immediately on the characters, as the Puerto Rican street gang, The Sharks, engages in a turf war with the opposing gang, the blue collar, white, Jets in 1950’s New York City. Drew Foster, as Riff, not only has a great voice, but has perfected the calm, cool demeanor of the Jet’s leader. The “Jet Song” was a great lead off number, showcasing the dancing finesse of the entire Jet ensemble, while giving a glimpse at each of their individual personalities. Following this number, Riff then sets off to seek out former Jet member, Tony, played by Ross Lekites, to help fight against the Shark’s leader, Bernardo, played by Waldemar Quinoes-Villanueva, in an effort to gain control of the neighborhood once and for all.
Loyal to his longtime friend, Tony agrees to Riff’s request that he attend the dance where the rumble between the two gangs is set to take place. However, the optimistic, “Something’s Coming” sung flawlessly by Lekites, portrays Tony’s hope that that evening might bring something bigger. In these opening scenes, Lekites’ Tony has an air of excitement, an undertone of unfulfilled ambition, that immediately makes him a likable “boy next door” whom you can’t help but want to watch.
During “Dance at the Gym”, Wally Dunn’s quite funny Drew Carey-ish Glad Hand tries desperately to make peace between the two gangs of teens. In perhaps one of the best dance numbers of the night, Waldemar Quinoes-Villanueva’s Bernardo and his girlfriend, Anita, played by Michelle Aravena square off against the Jet’s Riff and his girlfriend, Graziella, played by the Kirstin Tucker. While these two pairs ignite the stage with dancing that would make Jerome Robbins proud, the entire Shark/Jet cast is magnificent in this dance-off. Tony meeting Evy Ortiz’s Maria is almost an afterthought to these scenes as I really just wanted to keep watching the dancing! When the innocent little sister of Shark leader, Bernardo falls for the Jet-on-the fence, Tony, I expected fireworks, but while Lekites and Ortiz pulled off a fair amount of lust, there was a certain emotional depth missing that would be expected of star-crossed lovers. Their relationship played throughout more like a fast-paced one night stand than a love worth losing your life over. That being said, Lekites’ “Maria” was vocally beautiful. When it came through, his portrayal of the headiness of a first love, lent a giddy excitement to Tony that made his relationship with Maria plausible and his character compelling. Unfortunately, Lekites and Ortiz together never captivated me, but perhaps my love of Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the 1961 film version clouded my objectivity a bit. When acting, Evy Ortiz’s Maria had a wonderful youthful innocence to match her beautiful voice, but on iconic songs like, “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty”, she was terribly somber, often appearing as if she was so intent on singing that she “forgot’ to act momentarily, and then slipping back into character. I was never really able to get invested in Maria and Tony as a couple, which made the rest of the plot a lot less heart-felt as well.