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by Michael L. Quintos
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the word "chance" is in its name.
Once again making the audacious gamble to re-work one of musical theater's most sacred properties, the little award-winning theater company with big visions, the Chance Theater, is currently staging a revamped version of the Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim classic WEST SIDE STORY for a just-extended run through August 19 in Anaheim Hills.
While this production still retains the original narrative's mid-20th Century New York City setting, this WEST SIDE STORY is, no doubt, a very 21st-Century-flavored re-telling. A hybrid of a chamber musical and lyrical performance art, this well-known musical about a pair of teenage paramours caught between a turf war between their respective culturally-different brethren gets an interesting new update, motivated mostly by the theater's understandably smaller space.
The end results are mostly winning—especially with this added bonus of close proximity between the actors and the audience. The whole production reminds us that just because the canvas is smaller, doesn't necessarily mean the artwork becomes a less favorable piece.
With just two rows of seats lining the length of each side of the centralized stage space, there is little wiggle room for an audience member to escape being literally in the thick of the action. Each breathless dance sequence, each emotional outburst, and every trickle of hard-working sweat is happening right on top of you, spearing its way to the core whether you want it to or not.
Some of it will be awkward and uncomfortable for sure—but, oddly, in a good way. Strange as it is to hear some of these iconic scenes and time-tested tunes rejiggered (not even drastically, mind you), this intriguing new reaction from this fresh new take on an established show is one of several delightful things you'll discover in this enterprising presentation.
Helmed by the theater company's own artistic director Oanh Nguyen and featuring beautifully dynamic new choreography by Kelly Todd, this WEST SIDE STORY starts off with a terrific opening frenzy that's much more compact than previous versions have showcased. Purists will probably miss the extended opening ballet—among many other signatures dances—first introduced by Jerome Robbins that seem to traverse the huge stages they've been performed on with such power and grace. Here, though, the intelligent new staging and hypnotic, constrained choreography is very much tailored to the nooks and crannies and suspended platforms that surround our confined audience, providing stealthy surprises from the show's nimble cast. By the time the story comes to its sad, tragic conclusion, an unexpected lyrical dance sequence adds some artful punctuation.
While the show is certainly not 100% perfect, in essence, this superb attempt at reinvention is, without question, quite spirited and valiantly well-executed. My only gripe—and, really, it's a minor one—is that in its quest to compress the show, some parts of the narrative feel ridiculously hurried and rushed. Though teen angst and puppy love in the real world do feel like a whirling dervish of emotions, the speed at which certain benchmark events unfold in this version (the dance at the gym, for example) doesn't slow down long enough to be adequately absorbed or to be as impactful. Granted, the show's emotional power still very much resonates overall, but at times, before one sequence really sinks in, the show has already moved on to the next vignette.
Nonetheless, for the most part, the show's enacted changes are marvelously staged. Many of the show's signature production numbers such as "America" (wonderfully done here), "Cool," "Tonight," and "The Rumble" are all quite good. More particularly, the gang fight that closes the first act poses so much more of a feeling of danger, thanks to its relative distance to our seats. Most people know what occurs here, yet the shock of its tragic occurrences still manages to jolt us. It's quite powerful as close-knit theater. While, personally, I feel that their treatment of "One Hand, One Heart" and "Somewhere" aren't as searing as previous productions have classically portrayed them, this show's treatment of "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love" gets it absolutely, perfectly right.
Technology also plays a huge part in this update and is one of the show's welcome additions to this classic property. For a theater with a tiny footprint, I have always admired the Chance Theater's continued effective usage of state-of-the-art lighting and video projections—besting how they're done in even some of the biggest regional theaters in the area. It's certainly more subtle here, but both add such appropriate mood to every scene.
And what's even more remarkable is seeing a cast that looks age-appropriate for the roles they play. Keaton Williams and Gina Velez, the pair that play star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria respectively, provide admirable portrayals of the infamous couple. But the show's real MVP's are Gasper Spinosa—who plays Tony's best friend Riff—and Chelsea Baldree—who plays Maria's brother's girlfriend Anita. Each are quite riveting, particularly Baldree whose character's act of pure selflessness in the second act (despite just experiencing a tragic loss) is gut-wrenching to watch. Her powerful portrait here and in several key scenes throughout are definitely worth some notices during awards season.
Along with the show's outstanding ensemble cast, a few also worth mentioning: the superb Frank Minano (as Doc), Michael Grenie (as Liet. Schrank), Amanda Sylvia (as Anybodys), and Robert Wallace (as Bernardo).
Though it seems utterly futile to even try to re-work an almost flawless classic such as WEST SIDE STORY, the fact that The Chance Theater attempted such a task should be applauded, especially considering such impressive results. Here's hoping their audacious trend continues.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from The Chance Theater's WEST SIDE STORY by Doug Catiller/True Image Studio. From top to bottom: Maria (Gina Velez) and Tony (Keaton Williams) fall in love on a balcony; Anita (Chelsea Baldree) pleads with Maria; Tony listens as his Riff (Gasper Spinosa) makes his case.
Due to overwhelming demand, The Chance Theater's Production of WEST SIDE STORY has been extended through Sunday, August 19, 2012. Performances are Thursdays & Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm & 8pm and Sundays at 2pm & 7pm. There will be TWO added performances on Wednesday, August 8 and Wednesday, August 15 at 8pm.
The Chance Theater is located at 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.chancetheater.com.