A scene from West Side Story, directed by Richard Israel, at La Mirada Theatre.
A scene from West Side Story, directed by Richard Israel, at La Mirada Theatre.
(© Jason Niedle)

West Side Story — Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents' reimagining of Shakespeare's Romeo And Juliet — is known for its deft staging that showcases energetic choreography as executed by a talented and youthful cast. While this latest production of the iconic show, presented by La Mirada Theatre, features two excellent performances, sloppy dancing and chaotic staging ultimately sabotage the powerful text.

Two rival gangs (the Sharks, led by Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, led by teenagers born in America) fight over control of their neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The Jets leader, Riff (Michael Starr), involves his best friend Tony (Eddie Egan) in the battle, an action that inadvertently leads to disaster when Tony falls in love with Maria (Ashley Marie), the sister of the Puerto Rican gang's leader, Bernardo (Armando Yearwood Jr.). The musical's star-crossed lovers attempt to bring everyone together, but racism and machismo prevent the possibility of peace.

Bernstein and Sondheim's music is still riveting 60 years later. The mash-up of Latino influences and classical Broadways tropes conjure a stunning score with influential songs like "Tonight," "Maria," and "Something's Coming." They were matched by Jerome Robbins' seamless balletic choreography. Unfortunately, with a bar set that high in the original production, not every revival will be able to live up to the same expectations. This production is one of those casualties.

Director Richard Israel and choreographer John Todd's dancers lack clarity of line and often seem winded or uncoordinated. In many numbers, there is no sense of rhythm with the music nor cohesion with the other dancers. Therefore, three classic numbers, "The Prologue," "Cool," and "Somewhere" fall flat. The dancers in the balletic sequences of "Somewhere" were so out of sync with one another that they appeared intentionally in canon . The production's best danced number features Anita (Marlene Martinez) and her friends touting the virtues of "America" with enthusiasm and meticulousness.

Besides the musical numbers, the poor staging extended to several book scenes as well. The actors were so close together during the rumble, it was difficult to comprehend the sequence of events. Israel had Tony in the back corner so that when he triggers the tragedy, most of the audience misses it. The staging itself was discombobulated, and in an effort to add (misguided) shock value during Anita's rape scene, one of the play's most vital moments ends up losing its impact.

There are some redeeming qualities to this production though. Ashely Marie is breathtaking as the youthful child who evolves into a passionate lover and eventually a rage-filled agent of vengeance. Her soprano voice is rich and compassionate. Martinez is a spitfire as the sassy Anita. She and Marie have wonderful chemistry and it genuinely feels as if their characters have been friends since childhood. As Tony, Egan hit all the right notes for most of the show. He plays up Tony's naïveté in love and ignorance of the ugliness around him. Unfortunately, when he mistakenly hears of Maria's death and stalks the street seeking to avenge her, there's no sadness, just anger.

The ensemble of gang members on both sides are mostly lethargic, particularly in their dancing. The women fare better. Danielle Kay is a feisty, tomboyish Anybodys, and Natalie Iscovich's Rosalia makes a perfect foil for Anita in "America."

Steven Young's lighting captures the moods, particularly the dank Doc's soda shop and the claustrophobic space under the freeway. Brent Crayon's orchestra sounds crisp. Relying mainly on chain link fences and scaffolding, Stephen Gifford's minimalistic sets conjure the asphalt jungle where these boys wage war.

A beloved musical is difficult to mount. Though the name recognition draws crowds, most audience members will have likely seen either the Oscar-winning movie or multiple stage productions. Despite adept production designs and two stellar performances from Marie and Martinez, La Mirada's production of West Side Story lacks the kinetic energy that the story and score deserve.