NME After Print - West Side Story with a different view (Review)
When it comes to musical theater, we have seen different ways that well-known productions can be changed up to offer audiences a new view on an old classic. That seems to be the case with the latest production at Albuquerque Little Theater, where West Side Story is taking the stage from March 4th through the 26th. West Side Story is an inspired musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, where The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang made up of those who left the challenging island to find riches and the American dream in New York, are constantly being reminded by The Jets, the rival white gang, that they do not belong. A forbidden love is found between a member of
The Jets, Tony, and the sister of the leader of The Sharks, Maria, which leads to tragedy and challenges for the star-cross lovers. West Side Story made a name for itself for its amazing storyline and fantastic choreography, so the attempt to take on this show is not a small feat.
On first entering the theater, the stage was set for a rumble. A chain-link fence took the length of the stage, and the backdrop, a terrific rendition of the Upper West Side of New York, made me feel like I was there in the middle of the action. Applause to the set, lighting, and props teams, led by Daniel K. Tabeling, Ryan Jason Cook, and Nina Dorrance, for the hard work it took to transform the Albuquerque Little Theater stage to old New York. I must also give praise to the Mejo Okon and the costume design team for their talented work. The ALT production had plenty of standouts on both sides. The Jets, who gelled really well on stage when it came to the acting, had some strong performances from Nicholas Handley (Tony), James Ackermann (Action), Andrew Detlefs (Diesel), Kristen Ryan (Gee-Tar), and Sef Garcia (Baby John). While everyone one was strong in their own way, these five had constant passion in their performances. Garcia, in particular, was a strong comic relief, stealing the scene at most times, especially during the number, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which was the most entertaining and energizing number of the entire musical.
When it came to The Sharks, Giacomo Zafarno (Bernando) and Stevie Nichols (Anita) had the strongest presence, both proving their power in acting and singing. Michaela Bateman (Maria), although not a strong actor, entertained with her beautiful voice. When it came to those who carried the dancing, Courtney Giannini (Velma), Veronica Baca (Minnie), and Michelle Eiland (Consuela) were exceptionally noticeable. Although these dancers were able to execute the choreography of Peter Bennett, the dancing - which is a major element in the history of this show - could not be carried by these standouts alone. At times chaotic, the choreography tried hard to capture the spirit of Jerome Robbins but sadly fell flat, showcasing, instead, the inexperience of those chosen to perform, for example, failed lifts and off-beat steps. The vocals were wonderful, but at times, the decision to perform certain songs in a particular way were left to be desired. Well-known songs from the musical, “America,” “Cool,” and, “I Feel Pretty” were lackluster due to rushed, unsure choreography and unbalanced harmonies, while “Something’s Coming,” “Somewhere,” and “Tonight” held up to the quality I would expect with this musical.
Director of this show and, as I discovered, Executive & Artistic Director of Albuquerque Little Theater, Henry Avery, had control of the flow and direction of this musical, and some of his decisions led to drag time in the production. Some scenes ran long, losing speed and interest and leading to viewers wondering when we would get to intermission. But it was one major decision that left a bad taste in the mouth of this reviewer. In a cast of 34 actors, 16 performers were on the side of The Sharks. In the Land of Enchantment, where there is an overwhelming abundance of talented Hispanics, The Sharks had a low amount of Hispanics - leaving the rest of the cast to be filled with a majority of white and Asian actors. Some of the actors performed in darker makeup to “pull off” the Hispanic role. But even more uncomfortable and, in some cases, offensive was the director’s choice to have all the actors who were not Hispanic do their “best” impression of a Puerto Rican accent. You could hear a pin drop, then murmurs from the audience when Bateman (Maria), an Asian actress, attempted to speak with an Hispanic accent. It was hard to watch and listen to. It truly distracted from the talented actors themselves.
Being that we are living in a time when various ethnicities - black, Hispanic, etc. - are struggling to be recognized for their talents and be given opportunities to showcase those talents, it seemed rather odd that this director and this theater would condone this type of casting for a production that is internationally known for its story of a racial turf war between whites and Puerto Ricans. This is a decision that, sadly, will hurt Albuquerque Little Theater and this production in the long run.
Despite poor decisions in the casting and direction of the show, it is evident that, despite those challenges, this cast worked hard to put on a memorable performance. Unfortunately, it will be one remembered for all the wrong reasons.