Dallas Summer Musicals present their spectacular production of “West Side Story” at the Music Hall at Fair Park, playing now through Oct. 23 as part of its 71st season.
Any production of “West Side Story” has a reputation that precedes its viewing. Even for someone like me who had never seen the musical performed (not even the 1961 film version), I knew all about the Sharks, the Jets and star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony.
The iconic musical, a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” moves the story to 1950s Upper West Side of New York City. The budding romance between Maria and Tony is put at risk by feuding gangs the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff, and the Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants led by Maria’s brother Bernardo.
The story unfolds to a tragic climax with the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The score features classics like "Something's Coming," "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere."
The DSM production, directed by David Saint, is a class affair. Solid performances by Ross Lekites as Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria soar with the help of supporting cast members, most notably Michelle Aravena, who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Jerome Robbins’ demanding choreography is performed with swift precision by the cast with the help of choreography reproducer Joey McKneely.
For a first-time viewer, “West Side Story” had a lot of hype to live up to. With more than 50 years since its historic 1957 debut on Broadway, the musical remains relevant. Countless references to it litter pop culture today. Even Fox’s “Glee” is using the musical as a major plot point this season, with the cast performing several of its numbers as students at the fictional McKinley High School ready their own production of the show. Needless to say, I was ready for a bombastic show. And boy, I got it.
“West Side Story” was almost exactly what I had heard it was: a colorful, still relevant retelling of the timeless story. Dazzling dancing by the fleet-footed cast in complicated, enormous dance sequences and impeccable singing by the leads. The most compelling sequences were in the dance where Tony and Maria meet for the first time and the Sharks’ show-stealer “America,” both in act one.
The vocal talent of Lekites and Ortiz are at their best in “Tonight,” the musical take of the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene. The technical tenacity of the vocalists is outstanding in the classic Bernstein-Sondheim duet, which makes up for their passable chemistry.
The supporting cast brings a kick to the show that makes it exceptional. Aravena's Anita commands the stage with such aplomb, it makes her character's turn from spunky Sharks girl to a brave minority facing all adversity head-on a highlight of the show. German Santiago’s Bernardo and Drew Foster’s Riff are the perfect unwavering, doomed rivals. And the assortment of actors playing the Jets and the Sharks make the smaller parts more three-dimensional than expected amidst large group numbers.
Apart from the classic love story, it is the race struggle of the Puerto Rican Sharks and the class struggle of the white, lower class Jets that adds to the longevity and appeal of the show. The setting of 50s Upper West Side New York makes the story the tale of the underdog, where every character fits the bill. Every character is confined to the streets the two gangs rumble over.
The night the show opened there were some sound issues — microphones cut out unexpectedly. However, it is certain the sound issues have now been addressed. It was a testament to the cast, who didn’t waver when such technical issues arose.
The DSM production of "West Side Story" is a wonder. I'm very glad I got to see such a classic of musical theatre performed on stage first. The musical's mix between dark, very real social issues and lighthearted song and dance makes it stick with viewers long after they've left their seats. It certainly helps that the music has such an earworm quality to it. I heard at least a dozen people humming or whistling "Somewhere" or "Tonight" as we left the theatre — and I was among them. It's never too late to enjoy a classic.
Shows are at 8 p.m. Oct. 18-23, and there are 2 p.m. matinees on Oct. 22 and 23. Ticket prices begin at $25. Tickets also serve as admission to the State Fair of Texas on the same day as your ticket to the show.
Ticket holders might want to factor in at least an extra half hour for travel time due to heavy State Fair traffic.
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