The musical version of Romeo and Juliet comes to Denver! Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's WEST SIDE STORY is dancing its way onto the Denver Center stage until New Years Day. Multi-Tony award winning choreographer and director Jerome Robbins gives us a contemporary version of Arthur Laurents' classic book. Unfortunately, I did not care for several of Robbins' creative liberties.
Having played Tony in my high school's production of WEST SIDE STORY, this musical holds a special place in my heart, and maybe I am a little prejudiced because of it. There are three major issues that I have with this particular take on the 1957 classic telling of warring ethnic groups, The Sharks and The Jets, within a classic Shakespearean star-crossed lovers motif. The first issue I have may upset some readers, but please know I do not intend to offend; this is meant as a theatrical critique. First, while I thought it was a beautiful and authentic touch to have several lines of dialogue among the Puerto Rican Sharks delivered in Spanish, this theatrical technique quickly went from beautiful and authentic to uncomfortable heavy petting, simply because of overuse (almost the entire rendition of I Feel Pretty was sung in Spanglish). My concern is that while nearly 32% of Denver's 600,158 residents are of Spanish-speaking Latino or Hispanic descent, only about 51% of the city's entire population attended one theatrical performance in the last year. So, while I appreciate the inclusive intention – and not to say that theater shouldn't attempt to reach broader audiences – I also feel that this may be a strategy that ends up alienating the primary theater-going demographic, possibly losing them in the process, and that would be a shame, because this is a good show that touches on contemporary immigration issues on a very subtle but important level.
The second issue I have occurred during the song Somewhere (There's a Place for Us). I loved that they gave the song to Anybodys, a tomboy who wants desperately to become a Jet and who usually does not have a solo, and the unusual scene immediately captured my attention. The issue is, we seemed to time-warp to a future dimension where the characters suddenly lose all hatred of rival gangs and ethnic identity becomes a non-issue, which is incongruent with the underlying theme of racial hatred and intense group affiliation that makes up the core of the plot, at least in
the beginning. The biggest thing that bothered me was the sudden jump – it seemed endearing yet odd at the same time. There is gang violence depicted in this musical, and rightly so, so the sudden shift to "kumbaya" tone threw me off.
The last issue is a major one for me. In this production, the Shark men head off for their showdown with the Jet men, leaving the iconic number America to the Shark ladies. Usually, this is a big ensemble dance number and one of the major highlights of the show, but with only five women dancing it left something to be desired. In an unexpected twist, though, it made the seminal number Gee, Officer Krupke even more meaningful and ironic in its deliberate satirizing of stereotypes, which delighted the audience. Other excellent highlight numbers included Something's
Coming, Cool, and Tonight Quintet. Other staple dance numbers were Prologue and Dance at the Gym (Mambo!).
Our Tony (Ross Lekites) and Maria (Evy Ortiz) have lovely voices, but really didn't command the stage, which ultimately allowed the supporting actors to shine. Drew Foster (Riff) and German Santiago (Bernardo) do an excellent job as the gang leaders, but this show truly belongs to Broadway veteran, Michelle Aravena as Shark girl Anita. She's a pro, plain and simple, and demonstrates the full range of emotional capacity necessary for this demanding role. Also worthy of mention are Jon Drake as Action and Alexandra Frohlinger as Anybodys for their fine contributions to this mostly green cast.