When West Side Story first premiered in 1957, it established itself as a landmark piece not because of innovation in style or technique but because of its exploration of serious issues like bigotry, rape, and murder. Unfortunately, in 2015, the once-progressive script falls short of truly questioning racial prejudice as an important social issue, and the innovative, thought-provoking production that this racially charged musical desperately needs is nowhere to be found in Rachel Rockwell’s production at Drury Lane.
Instead, Rockwell’s interpretation seems tailored more toward the audience of, let’s be honest, primarily senior citizens who filled the theatre on its opening night on January 22; the by-the-book production offered little in terms of creativity, specifically in Rhett Guter’s choreography which, though beautifully performed, borrowed significantly from the Jerome Robbins’ original choreography.
The fault of this lackluster production in no way lies with its mostly talented cast, specifically in a few key players, the show’s exuberant ensemble, and the incredible orchestra conducted by Ben Johnson--which gave new life to jazz-infused score. Lucas Segovia (Bernardo) stood out amongst a group of talented actors as the most fluid, emotionally charged performer in the group, and the popular song “America” was the highlight of the evening thanks to Michella Aravena’s vibrant performance as Anita. Tommy Rivera-Vega’s realistic, heart-wrenching portrayal of Chino is also worth mentioning as his scenes in Act II truly pack a powerful emotional punch.
Unfortunately, the weakest links (besides Roger Mueller’s soap-opera esque performance as Doc) in the production are the stars themselves. While Christina Nieves’ Maria is passable if not perfect vocally, Jim DeSalm’s Tony sounds untrained, with most of the character's required range seeming out of reach. He wanders around the stage, never truly connecting with his peers, like a high school jock trying theatre for the first time.
Of course, the major fault in the show is simply that it seems directed to get by rather than to dazzle, to mimic rather than to innovate. That being said, many audience members will enjoy it--but, minus a few stellar performances--don’t expect to see anything new.
West Side Story has been extended through March 29, 2015 at Drury Lane. Check out their website for ticket information.
Leigh Austin is a playwright based in Chicago. She received her Master's in Literature from Loyola University.