“Go back where you came from!” Like a festering sore, the uncomfortably familiar words stand out in a combative scene between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story, the 1957 musical about racism, bigotry towards immigrants, and, oh yes, a pair of star-crossed lovers. A modern-day adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story has aged little over more than 60 years of performances, highlighted by Leonard Bernstein’s kinetic score of off-kilter Afro-Cuban rhythms and graceful melodies, and Broadway newcomer Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics. 5-Star Theatricals’ marvelous production of the show made its debut at the Kavli Theatre in Thousand Oaks Friday night and, with 85-year-old George Chakiris, the Oscar-winning “Bernardo” from the acclaimed 1961 motion picture, in attendance, thrilled an enthusiastic opening night audience with a universally superb and often thrilling performance.
Initially titled “East Side Story,” Jerome Robbins’ original treatment focused on a turf war between Irish Catholics and Jews on Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the Easter-Passover season. By the time the show was cast, the story had been transformed into a battle between whites and Puerto Rican immigrants, with the show’s title changed to West Side Story. After casting was completed, press releases were sent out saying the show was now being called “Gangway!” a title that survived up until the out-of-town tryout in Washington, D.C. when it was decided that West Side Story was better suited for the serious subject matter of the story.
Recent productions, including the 2009 revival, incorporated Spanish lyrics and dialog into the show, but director Larry Raben chose a more traditional approach, with the exception of revamping the original choreography of Jerome Robbins and his then-assistant Peter Gennaro (the latter designing moves made by the Sharks during the gym dance and “America”). Choreographer Karl Warden’s work fits seamlessly into the story, with a few stunningly effective innovations.
Warden’s electrifying dance patterns retained a few homages to Robbins’ original choreography, such as the outstretched snapping fingers during the pre-mambo minuet at the gym. Warden’s work is inventive and appropriate to the characters, but never more so than in the “Cool” sequence, in which Jets leader Riff (effectively played by Aleks Pevec) implores his fellow gang members to resist their violent impulses (Stay loose, boy, turn off the juice, boy).
But Warden’s most extraordinary sequence was yet to come. The ballet that surrounds the song of “Somewhere” is meant to depict Tony and Maria’s fantasy of the idyllic life they will lead once they are liberated from the prison-like confines of the urban ghetto where they live. In his interpretation, Warden cast a twelve-person children’s ensemble, all dressed in white, to represent the innocence of all children before bigotry and hatred color their upbringing. As the scene plays out, the violence and savagery of the gangs’ conflict results in the deaths of two of their members. In Warden’s vision, two of the children representing the pair of combatants lie bloodied on the floor, a disquieting conclusion to the ballet. The sequence brings to mind the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from South Pacific, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” about the causes of racism. Warden’s highly emotional and imaginative staging is easily the most heart wrenchingly beautiful moment in the show.
5-Star’s production emphasizes the youthfulness of the gang members, particularly in its romantic leads. Brandon Keith Rogers, a Point Park University BFA graduate, is memorable as Tony, with Tom Cruise good looks and a silvery tenor voice, exhibiting his character’s starry-eyed, giddy infatuation with Maria, played by Giselle Torres. In his powerhouse opening number, “Something’s Coming,” Rogers conveys not a yearning for romance, but a premonition of a life-changing event. On the soaring devotional ballad “Maria,” his voice effortlessly glides into the stratospheric range, garnering an extended ovation from the audience.
Vivacious and charming, Torres, who once sang for Pope Francis in Mexico, has extensive film and television credits. Her lilting performance as Maria on “I Feel Pretty” was one of the show’s highlights.
Torres and Rogers make a wonderful couple, utterly charming in their characters’ youthful naïveté. One of the more under-appreciated songs in the remarkably complex and diverse score is their duet, “One Hand, One Heart,” elegant in its simplicity with a ravishingly beautiful Beethoven-like melody. The song serves as a musical approximation of Maria and Tony’s wedding vows, more solemn and straightforward than the more passionate “Tonight,” which replaced it in the famous balcony scene.
In the “Prologue,” the Jets and Sharks tangle in their disputed territory, but initially, their interaction is more playful than hostile, until A-Rab (Nic Olsen) is jumped by the Sharks, resulting in him being pummeled, his ear bloodied. The other Jets play their parts well, with a notably fierce performance by Doug Penikas as the explosive Action, who also leads the Jets in the rambunctious “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
Patrick Ortiz, who will be profiled next week on VC On Stage, played Chino in the 2009 Broadway revival and in the Shark ensemble on the national tour of the show. In 5-Star’s production, Ortiz has been elevated to the role of Bernardo, delivering a more youthfully sympathetic, well-rounded, portrayal than the more surly, stolidly proud way Bernardo is usually played, especially in his affectionately protective scenes with Torres as his sister Maria.
Lauren Louis gives a fiery, passionate performance as Anita, leading the Shark girls in the huapango-like “America,” in which she sings the praises of her new adopted homeland, with Taleen Shrikian doing a nice job as Rosalia in providing Anita with the humorous pro-Puerto Rico point of view.
Pixieish Antonia Vivino plays the tomboy Anybodys, matching the athleticism of the Jets step for step, and even scaling a towering chain link fence at two instances during the show. Vivino also provides an exquisite vocal of “Somewhere” (usually introduced by the Shark girl Consuela, sung off-stage), surrounded by the white-clad children in the ballet scene, an evocative and emotionally rich moment in this production.
Skip Pipo serves double-duty as the virulently anti-immigrant detective Schrank, who is just as bigoted as the members of the gangs (“I want to help you get rid of them,” he tells the Jets) and the nerdy, ultra-square Glad Hand, who futilely tries to peacefully organize the dance between the warring gangs in the gym sequence. Character actor/stand-up comedian Rich Grosso plays Officer Krupke, Schrank’s enforcer, who cuts a comical figure due to his shortness in stature, but is no less vicious in wielding his night stick. Ivan Thompson portrays Doc, the candy shop owner who serves as Tony’s employer and neighborhood conscience, who is unable to stop the approaching violence.
Kathryn Poppen’s wonderful costume design contrasts the colors of gang members’ attire, emphasizing pastel hues for the Jets and their girls (with letterman style jackets for the men), while the Shark gang members wear black leather jackets and their girls sport dresses in bold colors of orange, red, and hot pink.
Jeff Rizzo’s outstanding 19-piece orchestra flawlessly played from the pit. Jose Santiago provided the effective lighting design. The excellent and realistic fight choreography was created by Marc Leclerc.
No matter how many times it is revised, West Side Story continues to put an exclamation mark on the racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that still resonates in American culture, which has only been exacerbated in recent years due to inflammatory statements from the Oval Office.
West Side Story plays through August 4 in the Kavli Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.