When You're a Jet

One produces or appears in West Side Story at one’s own risk, and not only because it’s trotted out with the frequency of a Seattle rain shower. Most folks coming to see the Arthur Laurents/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim classic are fans of the famous film, and illogically expect to be taken to the heights achieved by that version. I half-grudgingly attended the Scottsdale Desert Stages summer production of the show, which I’d long ago placed on my “Seen It Too Many Times, Nothing More to Say” list. I feared an earnest, over-reaching homage to the film, which is what one usually encounters when a small company takes on this landmark musical.

What I discovered instead was a deeply sincere enactment of Laurents' story that never tried to impersonate the movie version. I found myself watching the flawed but energetic production numbers as if they were a reality show version of themselves. These Sharks and Jets dance like kids actually might if they were trapped in Hell’s Kitchen and chose to rumba rather than rumble. Their often-imperfect take on Jerome Robbins’ complex choreography gives the dances a different, more sincere kind of appeal that made watching this rerun all the more enjoyable.

So did Amber Gildersleeve’s performance as Maria. Her innocent, charming enactment of the flighty Puerto Rican gal who falls for a white boy and her impressive singing chops are almost certainly why Desert Stages mounted this show in the first place. She’s well supported by Edgar Andrew Torrens’ athletic and charismatic turn as Riff, and by director/choreographer Antonio Villarreal’s graceful, sinister Bernardo. I wanted Lynn Berry’s Anita to be less tentative, more fiery, but her pleasant singing voice and flirty stage presence were enough to convince me that maybe she was having an off night.

Unfortunately, Brad Rupp’s Tony lacks the passion and depth of emotion -- not to mention the ability to hit those nice round high notes -- needed for one of musical theater’s best-known romantic heroes. Rupp’s is a white bread, president-of-the-Key-Club sort of Tony, one who’s so harshly lit by Oliver Buchanon’s unforgiving spotlight that he appears twice his young age at times. I tried to believe that Maria might have fallen for him, but to no avail.

In a story about race relations, Villarreal’s color-blind casting is more than a little distracting, especially since it’s resulted in some of the whitest Sharks ever to grace the stage. And who must I fellate in return for never, ever having to watch another performer strapped to a headset mike? Tell me and I’ll go to him. The mikes used here are especially annoying and obtrusive -- taped to Jet faces, and trailing black rubber cords down into Shark couture -- and look ridiculous. Worse, they make the singers’ voices sound tinny and far-off. Why not just let the performers project their voices, or turn down the (unfortunately) prerecorded music? It’s a mystery.

The facility’s in-the-round layout allows for some interesting staging tricks, as when Sharks and Jets tumble out of various corners of the hall, but it also adds an unfortunate opportunity for audience members to insinuate themselves into the proceedings, as when an octogenarian stumbled out for a pee break during the climactic rumble scene at the end of Act One, which necessitated his practically joining the action that spilled out into the aisles. Or the kid who climbed onto the stage during intermission and made off with the switchblade left behind by one of the Sharks a few moments before.

Then again, West Side Story is a show that belongs to its audience, a show they’ve seen so often, they feel free to interact with it. I, too, felt invited to relax and enjoy this unusually competent, small-scale production of a big-deal show.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela