“West Side Story” – Phoenix Theatre

Theater Review – September 8, 2018


Mainstage Theatre, Phoenix Theatre
Phoenix, AZ

The Jets and the Sharks are rumbling stylishly at Phoenix Theatre as the company opens its 99th season with Leonard Bernstein’s melodic masterpiece “West Side Story.”  And while the stellar 1957 musical boasts the brilliant Bernstein score with Stephen Sondheim’s perceptively witty lyrics, the show’s raison d’etre are the magnificent Jerome Robbins (whose name is misspelled in the PT program) dances that this production recreates stunningly with just a touch here and there of creative originality.

This “West Side Story” is heavily influenced by Robbins’ original staging but what “West Side Story” isn’t?  Robbins’ brilliance placed this remarkably ageless show with the greats of the American musical theater.

But it takes an exemplary cast to sing, dance, and act this brilliant show and those mandatory ingredients are on display on Phoenix Theatre’s stage.  Director/Musical Stager Michael Barnard recreates the Broadway masterpiece’s mesmerizing tension as the superlative cast of local and imported talent magnificently sings, masterfully dances, and dramatically tells the touching yet tragic story of young love within the anxiety of rival gangs in a violent Manhattan neighborhood.

It is a daunting show to mount with the myriad of complex characters, the endlessly tricky choreography, and multiple scenes that require split-second changes to duplicate the complexity and smooth-flowing aplomb of recent Broadway productions that have larger budgets and more complex mechanicals than available at PT.  So the remarkable PT “West Side Story” is an amazing credit to our stellar local musical theater star.

Some caveats.  Many theatergoers are only familiar with the show’s movie and have not seen the stage version which is more intense than the softer film version which prettied up the rough tale of the rival Jets and Sharks gangs.  The stage version is grittier and rougher than the film.  The killings of Bernardo, Riff, and ultimately Tony are raw and will move you more profoundly than in the film’s less real and more glitzy approach.  And the ill-fated Maria and Tony romance is less glamorous and more believable in the PT version than in the film which featured stars Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer’s less credible romance.

But it is the sensitive Michael Barnard staging coupled with Joy Del Valle’s delicate Maria, James D. Gish’s idolized Tony, Alyssa Chiarello’s earthy Anita, and Eddie Maldonado’s excitable Bernardo along with the smaller characters insightful interpretations plus superb singer/dancers who execute the large ensemble numbers with artfulness that make this production so outstanding.  The off-stage orchestra delivers the score with finesse as the long show breezes by swiftly.

“West Side Story” is rarely presented on stage so the chance to witness a winning production makes this a unique theater experience that continues through October 14.  Get your tickets immediately for when word gets out, this production will fast sell-out.  For tickets, call the Phoenix Theatre box office at 602-254-2151 or order online at www.phoenixtheatre.com.

Grade: A