Aug 29, 2017

[Theater] West Side Story (Lunchbox Theatrical Productions) Review

For most of my life, West Side Story was one of those musicals that existed in my mind as a movie. Yes, I know it was a Broadway musical first before it was adapted into a movie, but given the time of its release, the movie remains the easier way to get to experience this story. So when the news that a touring production was coming to Manila, I figured it would be worth the investment.

Now I'll admit that West Side Story may have a few great and memorable songs but it also has a lot of weird ones that felt almost extraneous to the larger plot. And thus it was never really a musical that I looked out for because of the songs and the singing. But I have always loved it for the dancing and the sheer rigor demanded of anyone choosing to perform in this production.

The talent gathered for the movie was pretty top notch and that will always set the bar pretty high for any theater production of the show. But this staging was pretty stellar in that regard and certainly helped make the most of the experience.

Synopsis: West Side Story is a Broadway musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The Manila staging was through the touring production of Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and was held at The Theatre at Solaire from 10 August to 27 August 2017.

In 1950's New York City, there are two rival gangs vying for control. On one side are the Jets, mainly Caucasian kids. The others are the Sharks, mainly Puerto Rican immigrants. As much as the police do their best to keep the peace, altercations between the two gangs keep happening. Finally the leader of the Jets, Riff (Lance Hayes) decides to challenge Bernardo (Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva) to a rumble. Thus Riff asks Tony (Kevin Hack), who had helped start the gang but was now busy with a job, to join them at the dance while they issue the challenge as his lieutenant.

Tony initially declines but in the end agrees to go with them. And its there that he first lays eyes on Maria (Jenna Burns), Bernardo's sister. It's love at first sight and the two realize that something special has happened. But given the racially charged climate of the period, the two are separated by friends and family who naturally distrust one another.

What I Liked: First, the set was amazing. It seems simple at first as it's a mess of scafolding and ladders and stairs but once the show starts in earnest and you have the set pieces moving forward and back, it's amazing what a simple shift can do to set the tone of things. Sometimes it feels like they're in a wide open part of the city but still limited by the LCD screen of cityscapes in the distance. But then at times the two major pieces come closer, creating the sense of being cramped in the narrower alleys. Combine some great and thoughtful lighting and you have a stage that actively helps tell the story.

And then you have the performers themselves who did an amazing job with a lot of the dances. The principal players do not get to have as much fun as the chorus does and the many jumps, twists and turns that they have to execute over and over again throughout the show is pretty amazing. This is not an easy musical and the dancing is so central to whether it's good or bad and the team really delivered.

What Could Have Been Better: Sadly, I have to concede that I wasn't a big fan of Jenna Burns as Maria. She had this weird accent for most of the show that sounded more Russian than Puerto Rican and it distracted me to heck. And since she did her best to maintain it during all of her speaking lines, it was this constant dissonance to her performance that I couldn't fully appreciate. And it really stood out as everyone else was pretty much on point in terms of their dialog and how they were cast.

Lance Hayes as Riff is another example of the performance not being there. He was't quite the strong leader of the Jets in his speaking lines but balanced it out with some pretty phenomenal dancing. So his performance did leave me a little torn.

TL;DR: West Side Story was a great production on the whole and I'm glad that we got to see it before the show closed in Manila. If anything, come for the dancing as that is what defines a lot of this musical and it didn't disappoint in that department. Thus the show gets 4 surprise set configurations out of a possible 5.

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