West Side Story leaves much to be desired vocally but delivers in execution

The Fox Theatre’s current production of West Side Story delivers a classic theatre experience of blended comedy, drama and great music. This particular musical has been around since the 50s, which is also the time for the setting. For those unfamiliar with this particular classic, the plot is essentially Romeo and Juliet, but with gangs in New York City. The Shakespearean origins are more of a starting point than a formula, as the play diverges in several respects, which is not entirely predictable based solely on knowledge of Shakespeare’s work. Because the basic structure of the play is not anything new, its strengths arise through those attributes unique to musical theatre: singing and dancing. By these two standards, the version of the show on display at the Fox Theatre is weak in one but strong in the other.

The musical score of West Side Story was composed by Leonard Bernstein, so all of it is masterfully arranged and beautiful to listen to, even between scenes and during dance numbers. The orchestration was executed without any glaring flaws, providing a solid musical foundation for all that happened on the stage.

The singing was less consistently good. Of the two protagonists, Maria, played by Ali Ewoldtm, sang with strength and accuracy, whereas Tony, played by Kyle Harris, frequently struggled with the upper ranges of his voice. The fact that the two made a romantic pair meant that Maria clearly dominated any duets that the couple had on stage, slightly weakening the effect of the emotion of the songs. Of the rest of the cast, only Anita, played by Michelle Aravena, stood out as a strong singer.

Fortunately, the success of many of the musical numbers did not depend as much on solo musical talent as it did on energy and emotion. One of the best numbers in the play was “Gee, Officer Krupke” in which some of the gang members do impressions of a policeman, a judge, a psychiatrist and other public figures to ridicule how those figures perceive the gang members. The song is very silly, and the antics of the characters on stage make it very fun to watch. This energy exists in several other numbers, all of which stand out as more enjoyable than the softer, musically technical pieces.

The liveliness in the ensemble numbers carries over into excellence in dancing talent. The choreography for the show is well-done, which is good for the audience because there is plenty of it. Large portions of many songs are simply dance numbers, but these dance numbers are both interesting to watch and also frequently serve to communicate the relationships and emotions of the story. In particular, they express the underlying themes addressing love and racism. In dancing segments that double as gang fights, the timing is especially precise, showing off the cast’s ability to rhythmically flow across the stage in a seemingly chaotic manner.Aside from the dancing, not much else stood out about this musical. The set was effective in its simple design and capacity for quick scene shifts, often disappearing temporarily to make room for the more elaborate dance numbers.

The lighting was effective, but only insomuch as it served its purpose without drawing attention to itself, subtly underscoring the emotions of each scene. One interesting aspect of this production of West Side Story that might confuse those familiar with older versions is the amount of Spanish.

The two central gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are composed of Americans and Puerto Ricans. In the play, large portions of the dialogue between Puerto Rican characters are actually Spanish. This makes a few conversations hard to follow, but the emotions involved and the important plot points still come across. This change might detract from the experience for some, but it has the positive effect of drawing more attention to the cultural differences that drive the major conflict of the musical.

Aside from some weaknesses in vocal talent, the execution of dancing, lighting and orchestration is practically flawless. West Side Story has many wild and silly moments mixed amidst dark, moving ones. All of the dances are enjoyable to watch. By embracing the strengths of ensemble song and dance above all else, West Side Story ultimately provides an entertaining show.
West Side Story will continue playing at the Fox Theatre through the weekend. There are shows on Friday, Jan. 28 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 30 at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.


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