Theater Review: WEST SIDE STORY (5-Star Theatricals in Thousand Oaks)

by Tony Frankel on July 30, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles

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A RESONATING STORY

It rarely happens. “The Broadway Chill” I call it. That moment when an already amazing show is given the perfect and unexpected staging which heightens emotion, inducing moist eyes and gooseflesh as only can happen in the theater. Having seen West Side Story staged many times, I can say that rare is the production which swerves away from Jerome Robbins’ original direction and choreography without sacrificing his intent. In the case of 5-Star Theatricals, director Larry Raben and dancemaker Karl Warden already assembled inexhaustible dynamos to execute the vigorous dancing while they pile-drive Leonard Bernstein’s too-hot-to-handle music and the many moods of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. The hot, young, gorgeous troupe tears into the hormonal turf dancing of the anthemic “Jets Song” and an equally combative dance competition, where Caucasian Tony and Puerto Rican Maria fall in love amid the warring street gangs of 1957 New York. The sure-fire storytelling behind every movement in “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” are matched by the almost scary youthfulness that bursts through their seams.

Then the ensemble eases into the lovers’ heartbreaking Act II elegiac fantasy of the happy ending that this world will not permit. I’ve seen versions where the cast is clothed all in white, but never done with children — ones who are also amazing dancers (I’ll say no more so as not to spoil your experience). Not only does 5-Star give these youths the opportunity to be bit by the theater bug, but they up the ante by creating a spine-tingling and soul-crushing version of the “Somewhere” Ballet to remember forever.

Poleaxed by passion, both the sensational Brandon Keith Rogers as Tony and Giselle Torres as Maria redefine infatuation in a hundred different ways. Strong and settled in, Rogers, his steady tenor matched by his good looks, brings ardent impetuosity to his gangbanger-next-door, playing Tony as if, yes, “Something’s Coming” but he can’t tell what; playing the moment is the only way to do Tony. A vision in white, Torres’s Maria is a Madonna who — having to grow up fast — prefers to be un-immaculate; Ms. Torres reconfirms true-believing Maria’s awesome hopefulness (“I Feel Pretty”), bringing an achingly sweet soprano to this vulnerable survivor.

Surrounding the lovers with hate, Aleks Pevec’s rough-and-ready Riff is a spunky contrast to Patrick Ortiz’s Bernardo and his self-defeating machismo and complete lack of anger management. Lauren Louis offers a kinetic Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, who struggles to rise above that hate; Ms. Louis nobly captures the strong woman’s ambivalence while joining the Sharks’ girls for some of the best kicks in town.

5-Star’s revival, as hard-hitting as some of it is, loses a bit of emotional power with some awkward line readings, miscast adults (except for the great Skip Pipo as Lt. Schrank), and badly timed and unnuanced segues. Raben clearly had his hands full with a gigantic cast and orchestra (a joy to hear under Jeff Rizzo’s kick-ass conducting), and only a few weeks of rehearsal, so the needed nuance may appear as the short, and already popular, run progresses. I’m so grateful that I get to hear the orchestrations and arrangements exactly as they were heard on opening night in 1957. This earnest production and it’s rocko-socko-boffo leads will make anyone happy to be alive.

photos by Ed Krieger

West Side Story
5-Star Theatricals (formerly Cabrillo Music Theatre)
Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza
ends on August 4, 2019
for tickets, call 800.745.3000 or visit 5-Star

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