Why do we bother to go to live theater? As we all walk hand-in-hand into the metaverse, and before we disappear inside our virtual reality headsets to escape the snarling realities of life in the 2000's, let's consider why we still take the trouble to drive to a place to watch people talk, sing and dance on stage.
Consider the current production of West Side Story at Porthouse Theatre. Talk about a piece that's played out! This classic American musical has been mounted by virtually every professional and non-professional theater company, college, and overly eager community theater in existence. Topped off by a recent film version by Steven Spielberg. Why take the trouble to sit through it again?
Well, because the show is great and because this production is so damn good. Once "The Dance at the Gym" scene arrives, with the Jets and Sharks spinning and dipping with their own kind and glaring at their hated rivals, this production finds its groove and becomes its own special creation. In the role of Shark leader Bernardo, Rosario Guillen exudes macho confidence with sparks of hate as he faces off against the Jets and their leader Riff.
In "Maria," Devin Lee Pfieffer eschews the usual characterization of Tony as noble and aloof. His Tony is a sort of boy-next-door, singing in a conversational manner and even chuckling a bit as he navigates that love song with his ample baritone pipes. Then he is topped by Alexa Lopez as Maria, who displays her glorious voice in "Tonight," the yearning anthem to hope.
With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Steven Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents, WSS pursues the enormous question of whether love will ever conquer hate (particularly timely these days), along with the tensions involved with a doomed romance. And all of it feels genuine.
There are other multiple high points. Act Two is launched with the festive "I Feel Pretty," as Lopez celebrates the rush of new love with her feisty gal pals Consuela (Lauren Henriques), Rosalia (Kirstin Angelina Henry), and Francisca (Gaby Garza). Lopez and Victoria Mesa as Bernardo's girlfriend Anita also stir it up in their duet "A Boy Like That" and "I Have a Love."
The one comical number, "Gee, Officer Krupke," is knocked out of the park by the Jets: Action (Robert Miller), A-rab (Jeremy Alden), Baby John (Dominic Young), Snowboy (Jared Warren), and Diesel (Will Dupuis). Flitting around the outskirts of all the Jets' activity is the gender-fluid outsider Anybodys, given a rousing turn by Maya Galipeau.
This show benefits from the direction by Terri Kent, the producing artistic director of Porthouse and a person with perfect pitch when it comes to staging American musicals. She is aided immensely by artistic collaborator and choreographer Martín Céspedés, whose dance numbers throughout are invigorating. This is especially true of his staging of the Procession/Nightmare ballet. That sequence is remarkable and evocative, including a touching solo of "Somewhere" by young Sophia Cora.
The production isn't perfect in all respects. It gets off to a slow start with an energetic but mostly confusing "Prologue" dance number. And the "Jet Song" is a bit awkward, led by Zachary Mackiewicz as Riff, who has the grit and drive of his character in spades, but whose singing is often in search of the right note and tempo.
If you're getting nervous now that we're in August, and you're looking for a way to cap off Summer '22, you could do a whole lot worse than spending a balmy evening at Porthouse Theatre in the company of this fulsome West Side Story.
West Side Story
Through August 14 at Porthouse Theatre, Blossom Music Center Campus, 3143 O'Neil Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223, 330-672-3884, kent.edu/porthouse.