Also see Kevin's review of The Big Funk
A half-century ago, an ambitious librettist, an established composer, and a young, up and coming lyricist began a musical collaboration that was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. West Side Story grabbed a few 1958 Tony awards and spawned a movie in 1961 that received more than a few Oscars, including one for Best Picture. Almost 50 years later, West Side Story is still receiving accolades, thanks in small part recently to a production by the Broward Stage Door Theatre at its 26th Street complex in Wilton Manors.
We all know the premise by now. Two rival gangs face off on the West Side of Manhattan. Cops break it up. The two gangs decide to square off at a dance, where a boy meets a girl for the first time. But Boy’s best friend is the leader of one gang, and Girl’s brother is the leader of the other. Boy and Girl fall in love, then Girl asks Boy to stop the conflict between the two collectives. Boy can’t resist Girl’s charms, so he sets out to end the battle, but things go awry, spiraling downward toward an unhappy ending for all parties.
There are a lot of contradictions in this production, beginnng and ending with the production and design staff. From Sean McClelland's grandiose set design to Chrissi Ardito’s mixture of ballet, slick mambo rhythms, and stunt fighting, this current reincarnation straddles a fine line between childrens’ and community theatre. Though Larry Bauman’s solid colored costumes are never dated, and Anthony White‘s lighting is executed well and on point, McClelland’s gigantic Manhattan looks authentic on the outside, while a closer look reveals actors in places that hinder audience members' sightlines. For instance, the number "I Feel Pretty" has the ladies in an upper level bedroom with steel bars in front, resembling a jail cell. At the top of act two, the actors can hardly be seen, so we don’t know who is talking to whom.
Leonard Bernstein’s score is streamlined through David Cohen’s virtual orchestra, and this is the biggest disappointment of all. The ensemble is trying to stay on pace, but the music is too fast or too loud for them to stumble through. David S. Torres’ sound machine dwarfs the vocals so overwhelmingly that most words are not heard. "Somewhere" feels like a copout because a soloist was pre-recorded singing most of the lyrics. The only thing that keeps the production from being a total meltdown is the energetic ensemble on stage - and leading this charge are the main players.
David Sattler coos as Tony, the boy who is waiting for his moment to come. During "Something’s Coming," Sattler’s smooth tenor creeps in quietly, but is proud and strong when ready. Eric Robinson proves he is able to command as Riff, leader of the Jets. Part class clown, part fearless chief, Robinson's Riff is never a slouch when coaxing his team to battle in "Jet Song" or calming them down during "Cool." Ricky J. Martinez plays Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, bringing suaveness and fire to his character. He is a force to be reckoned with. Matching him in persona is Jamie Castiglia’s portrayal of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Castiglia transforms into a feisty individual ready for a new life in a new country.
As in every love story, all eyes will focus on the girl with the big heart who is willing to keep an open mind even though others are trying to protect her. That assignment belongs to Kristin Mellian as Maria, Bernardo’s sister. Maria falls in love with Tony at the dance, thus beginning the unraveling of the star-crossed lovers tale. If Sattler has the hunk factor, then it is Mellian who has cuteness and doe eyes down to a Disney-esque science. Their chemistry is undeniable in selections like "Tonight" and "Somewhere."
Special comic relief credit goes to Bianca Raborg as Anybodys, the girl who wants to be one of the guys. Raborg’s comic timing gels well with the Jets when it’s time to mix!
Kathi E.B. Ellis’ erratic direction ranges from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. For example, an unnecessary spotlight featuring a painted portrait of Maria is better off for film purposes, not for stage. And even though the vocals are excellent in most cases, some scenes (like the finale) are too contrived. Mellian’s final performance comes off like a hurt child instead of a mature woman.
Controversy surrounds this particular production as well; on Sunday, February 1st, Jack Zink, local theatre critic of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, wrote an article stating that non-union productions such as this one are able to have quality talent, and members of the Actors Equity Association are not as needed as they used to be. He also stated that it is a fair trade for an audience to see a non-union show at a lower price and still be as entertained as if the actors were AEA members. This article has stirred the ire of local Equity members and a campaign has been set against Zink and his claims. The goal is to persuade Zink to write a retraction of his statements, or an apology.
It is understandable that Zink praised the Stage Door’s presentation. Raw energy, young talent, quality sets and brilliant lighting are all elements for a stellar production. But for all intents and purposes, he shouldn’t have chosen this revival as the catalyst for his article. Even though the Stage Door has updated West Side Story for the 21st century, it is still far from being comparable to quality theatre. And that is an unfair trade for the performers and the patrons. It especially doesn't do justice to the men who created this masterpiece almost 50 years ago.
West Side Story plays through March 28th at the Stage Door’s 26th Street Theatre, 1444 NE 26 Street in Wilton Manors. For more information, please call (954) 344-7765 or www.stagedoortheatre.com.
STAGE DOOR’S 26TH STREET THEATRE - West Side Story
Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Stage Manager: Gillen Brey
Orchestrations & Musical Direction: David Cohen
Scenic Design: Sean McClelland
Sound: David S. Torres
Featuring: David Sattler, Kristin Mellian, Ricky J. Martinez,
The Ensemble: Michael Boyd, Christopher McNeany, Brad Duffie,
-- Kevin Johnson