“West Side Story” is one of those rare occurrences when the work transcends the genre it’s in. Arthur Laurents’ exhilarating book, Leonard Bernstein’s soul-stirring score, and Stephen Sondheim’s quotable lyrics remain ever germane despite the 62-plus years since the musical was first staged. Of course, there is perhaps the most underrated of all the production’s winning ingredients — the frenzied, but astutely organized movement by choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose contribution continues to be a revelation. This summer, 5-Star Theatricals has proven the musical’s timelessness again with a rendering that is delightful, impassioned, and heartfelt in all the right spots. It is the perfect ending to the company’s 2018-19 season, which also boasted big statements in “Shrek The Musical” and “Matilda.”
Now playing at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza (specifically the Kavli Theatre) through only August 4th, 5-Star Theatricals’ “West Side Story” does more than just recapitulate the same evocative plot and imagery that fans, young and seasoned, are familiar with. Instead, this production, which is fabulously directed by Larry Raben, and features inventive choreography by Karl Warden (who simultaneously rehearsed for and performed in the Hollywood Bowl’s much-talked-about “Into the Woods”), pushes itself to the limit in bringing the saga of the Capulets and Montagues to a modern audience who also now know them as the warring Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. This time, as opposed to Romeo and Juliet, it’s Tony and Maria whose forbidden love, over the course of only two days, is at the forefront along with racial tensions that are as sadly relevant today as they were in years past.
The scenic layout transports us again to the Upper West Side of New York City during the 1950s with its brick-laid neighborhood and chain-link fences. The focused lighting by Jose Santiago gives the oftentimes tense plot an added significance, and music director/conductor Jeff Rizzo leads the audience up and down waves of compelling dramatics in what is a terrific homage to Bernstein. Additionally, Jonathan Burke’s sound design ensures the clarity of the affecting notes being played and sung, and Kathryn Poppen’s costumes contribute to the overall immersion.
From the very first number (“Jet Song”), it quickly becomes apparent that this is a show with an indefatigable liveliness that won’t let up – which is a major credit to Warden. The dancing is as crisp and awe-striking as one can wish for, with the mambo sequence at the gym, where Tony and Maria first meet, being akin to a refreshing burst of energy. “Cool” incorporates seamless classical jazz and ballet, and “Somewhere” combines the adult and youth ensembles to create a balletic tapestry that poetically reminds of transgressions caused by hate.
Leading the charge of the show’s poignant message are Brandon Keith Rogers and Giselle Torres, who, as Tony and Maria, are sensational together. Rogers’ Tony cogently conveys his wide-eyed willingness to mature beyond life as a Jet, refusing to become cynical like his peers are. Rogers’ rendition of “Maria” is boosted by a high-register timbre that sounds effortless and yet heartwarmingly wistful. Making for a terrific stage counterpart to Rogers is Torres, whose YouTube music videos have amassed more than 1 billion views, and it’s easy to see why. Torres’ star power is on full display as a Maria who is beautifully heartbreaking and sings expressively, marked by a vibrato that sounds extraordinary to the ear. Her performance of “I Feel Pretty,” for instance, is lovely, as are her goosebumps-inducing duets with Rogers (e.g, “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart”).
Furthermore, the charismatic Aleks Pevec portrays the Jets’ head-honcho, Riff, with a great intensity that equally comes through in his acting, singing, and dancing. Supporting his character on the side of the Jets are Nic Olsen, who makes an impression with his unrelenting energy as A-Rab; Doug Penikas, who is superbly accurate in playing the unstable Action; Chet Norment (Baby John), who is appropriately irreverent and even dastardly; Brock Markham, who gives Diesel an effectively strong presence; and Daniel Brackett, who earns laughs as Big Deal with his mocking of Officer Krupke (an impeccably cast Rich Grosso). Last, but not least, Antonia Vivino is a standout as Anybodys – the girl who wants be considered one of the guys. Vivino brings a considerable pluckiness to her role, which is allowed to shine even more when she tenderly sings a few lines of “Somewhere.”
The other side of the gang divide is led by Patrick Ortiz as the maroon-suited and macho Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks and brother to Maria. Similar to Pevec, Ortiz imbues his persona with an assuredness that is headstrong to the point of not backing down from a fight. As Bernardo’s romantic partner and Maria’s best friend, Anita, Lauren Louis is rivetingly authentic and memorable getting across a spirit that can be playful like in “America” (Taleen Shrikian’s mischievous Rosalia is also notable here) as well as fervidly serious, like in “A Boy Like That,” when her powerhouse voice punctuates the climax.
Also deserving of acclaim among the large cast is John Paul Batista whose Chino manages to draw measurable sympathy for being a victim of the quickly precipitating circumstances. Another top performer is the versatile Skip Pipo who is both the punishing Lt. Schrank as well as the comically high-shrieking Glad Hand. Finally, Ivan Thompson offers something different as the usually frail and soft-spoken Doc by standing tall, helped by the evident muscle on his frame, to be the voice of wisdom and reason against unnecessary enmity and violence.
Overall, with a production with as much cachet as “West Side Story,” it would be easy to just play it safe. But as they’ve done in recent memory, 5-Star Theatricals has gone above and beyond to exceed expectations with a musical that stays true to its roots while not losing an ounce of its impact on the audience. Suffice it to say, “West Side Story” is a finger-snapping, energetic spectacular that is as moving as it ever was.
5-Star Theatricals will begin its 2019-20 season with “The Music Man” on October 18 (through the 27th). Tony-Award nominee Adam Pascal will star as Harold Hill.
For more information about 5-Star Theatricals’ production of “West Side Story,” and for further details on its 2019-20 season, please visit: