LA Review: 'West Side Story'

at Chance Theater

Reviewed by Eric Marchese

July 16, 2012

Photo by Doug Catiller True Image Studio
In the more than 50 years since the landmark musical "West Side Story" first appeared, it has been revived countless times and become a staple of musical theater companies of all sizes. Productions that break the fourth wall, however, are few and far between. Other elements frequently missing are age-appropriate casting and the ability to generate a visceral sense of tension and danger. Director Oanh Nguyen and a stellar production team address all of these deficiencies in a powerful production that surrounds the audience and immerses them in the action. Bradley Kaye's scenic design brings the cast right up to the front rows of seats on opposite sides of the Chance Theater stage, but it also places them behind the seats on both sides, above viewers' heads. Combined with Nguyen's fluid staging and Kelly Todd's dynamic choreography, this approach effectively prevents spectators from regarding the story and characters as physically and emotionally remote.

Nguyen expands upon Jerome Robbins' original conception, Arthur Laurents' book, Leonard Bernstein's music, and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics without losing any of what makes them great. Musical highpoints include a breathless "Something's Coming," a sultry "Dance at the Gym," a reverent "Maria," a soaring "Tonight," a cheeky "America" and a quasi-religious "One Hand, One Heart." The sweet playfulness of "I Feel Pretty" and the goofy anti-establishment "Gee, Officer Krupke" provide a welcome respite from the gang brutality that surrounds these numbers. Conceptual brilliance is displayed in "Somewhere" and the finale, which tie together themes of violence, longing, and mortality in ways that are complex, surreal, and poignant.

The cast, 25 strong, contains no weak links. Sporting blue denim and tattoos, the Jets are baby-faced yet muscular and athletic, while the Sharks are, at least in public, well-dressed and adherent to social formality. The hallmark of Keaton Williams' youthful, juvenile Tony is his foolish refusal to see reality. Gina Velez is a sweet, wholesome Maria, more sensible than Tony yet still swept away by the powerful currents of love. Chelsea Baldree is a sassy, streetwise Anita. Robert Wallace's darkly handsome Bernardo smolders with his hatred for whites. Israel Cortez's Chino is a basically decent teen who lacks the guts to resist being in a gang. Gasper Spinosa's Riff is the cool-headed yet ambitious de facto Jets leader. Brian Alexander's Action is a swaggering hothead.

Robyn Wallace's music direction, offstage piano and keyboard playing, and conducting of a five-piece combo add nuance to Bernstein's immortal score while allowing a fresh appreciation of Sondheim's genius for creating lyrics that surprise. Anthony Tran's costumes, KC Wilkerson's lighting and video, and Dave Mickey's sound scheme round out a peerless reconceptualization of this musical theater classic, one for which no superlative is undeserved.

Presented by and at Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. July 13–Aug. 19. Thu. and Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (714) 777-3033 or

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