Though two star-crossed lovers were supposed to be the focus of West Side Story, in Musical Theatre West’s opening night performance (Feb. 13) at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, all eyes were on a supporting character.
As a quick synopsis, West Side Story is set in mid-1950s in an Upper West Side New York neighborhood brewing with ethnic tension between recently arrived Puerto Ricans and lower-income whites, represented by two rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, respectively. Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, this Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical begins as Shakespeare did– with an innocent kiss– and ends in tragedy, with three murders all told.
Lauren Boyd played the sexy and confident (Don’t those two often go hand in hand?) Anita, the Sharks leader Bernardo’s (Cooper Howell’s) girlfriend. In high heels, black stockings and garters, black and red cancan girl’s dress, she was a perfect foil to the lily-white innocence of Maria (Ashley Marie). Boyd commanded attention and gave a performance that was full throttle with the sex drive of a sailor on shore leave, though her passion was reserved for Bernardo. Boyd showed Anita as a fun-loving, sometimes wise (“With those boys, you can start out dancing and end up kneeling”), older-sister figure to Maria. She was an Anita with a zest for life, despite the poverty and ass-slapping sexism that surrounded her. Her joy and courage were what made the gang rape scene, thankfully interrupted, in Act II so jarring. In this revision of the 1957 classic, the Jets aren’t just young ne’er-do-wells with an excess of bravado and a strong dose of racism, they’re rapists.
In contrast, Marie must give her character more of an umph. This Maria seemed far too young to be interested in a kiss from Tony (Michael Spaziani) and much too innocent to spend the night with him. Ideally, Maria needs to embody that flower-bursting-to-open stage, that exceedingly ephemeral moment between playing with dolls and becoming a knockout. She is no Anita, but she cannot be a child either.
Both Marie and Spaziani didn’t appear to be giving the performance their all. Some of that was technical, since the mics produced occasional screeches during a few of the high notes and once even static. It wasn’t until his third number, “Tonight,” that Spaziani stepped into a more robust voice.
An ingenious set-in-the-round allowed for quick changes with just a push of the center-stage platform. The only time this did not serve the actors well was during many people’s favorite number, “I Feel Pretty.” Marie had to perform this in a small upstairs bedroom, occupied by three other actors. “Pretty” is best accompanied by sweeping arm gestures and a good deal of skirt flouncing. Marie was constricted by the set, at least how she used the set. She stayed in the bedroom when she could have done pirouettes on the stairs and danced about the dress shop downstairs while her friends looked over the railing and rolled their eyes. When done right, this song explodes, but exuberance requires plenty of floor space.
Choreographer Hector Guerrero deserves high praise; while dancing, every member of the cast shined.
Especially noteworthy were the antics of the Jets in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a tongue-in-cheek critique of the then-budding social services industry. Costume designer Karen St. Pierre captured the fun of the ‘50s without the fuss. And a big shout-out to the 30-piece orchestra– the original size in 1957.
West Side Story continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through Sunday, Feb. 28. Performances are Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm, and Thursday, Feb. 25, at 8pm. Tickets start at $20. Tickets may be purchased online at musical.org or by calling (562) 856-1999, ext. 4. The Carpenter Performing Arts Center is located at 6200 E. Atherton Ave.