Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

West Side Story
Arizona Broadway Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of The Exorcist Has No Legs, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin and Man of La Mancha

Brittany Santos and Jesse Michels
With the perfect combination of drama, music, and dance, and containing some of the best-known theatre songs, it is easy to see why West Side Story is considered a classic musical and is loved by so many. With a very good cast and fluid direction, Arizona Broadway Theatre is presenting a solid production of this musicalized, updated version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is set in 1950s New York City. The musical changes Shakespeare's two feuding families into two rival gangs, one white, the Jets, and one Puerto Rican, the Sharks. With both gangs fighting for their home turf, the star-crossed lovers, former Jet Tony and Maria, sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, get caught in the middle. With themes of loyalty, friendship and dedication to family and one's heritage, West Side Story is an emotionally moving piece of theatre, especially in how it demonstrates how the love between Tony and Maria helps them overcome their differences despite the feuding that surrounds them.

The score contains some of the most well-known musical theatre songs, including the ballad "Something's Coming," the comical numbers "I Feel Pretty" and "America," and the lovely duet "Tonight." There isn't one bad song in the score of this show. Bernstein's exceptional music is complemented by Sondheim's witty lyrics and each musical number adds to the character development and plot. Even the dream ballet of "Somewhere" is perfectly placed at the height of the tension and adds some beauty into the ugliness we've just experienced.

The ABT cast includes several actors who are performing for the first time at this West Valley theatre. All of the cast members portray the youthfulness of their roles, and the leads have exceptional singing voices as well. While it is a heavy dance show, a few in the cast were a bit sluggish or out of sync in the delivery of a few of the more intricate steps at the opening night performance. Hopefully, this will be corrected with a few more performances under their belts.

Jesse Michels and Brittany Santos are exceptional as Tony and Maria. They both exhibit the yearning and desire for something new and different to come into their lives. Their clear voices soar on their solos and come together beautifully on their numerous duets. They create a genuine and realistic couple, full of desire and love. Michels' solos of "Something's Coming" and "Maria" are highlights. Melissa Rapelje is a firecracker as the feisty character of Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. With guts and passion, she is engaging in her portrayal of this role, a part that is almost always a major highlight of any production. She is natural in her comic abilities, which she displays in "America," but genuine, raw and sympathetic as well, with the duet she shares with Santos, "A Boy Like That," being given a powerful, perfect delivery.

In the supporting cast, Pasqualino Beltempo and Adam Shaff, as Bernardo and Riff, effectively display the hatred and pent-up energy the two gang leaders have for each other, and the rest of the Jets, who get the most character development of the gang members, are all good in creating unique characters. As Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a member of the Jets, Sarah Powell is quite good, and Andy Meyers is appropriately concerned and the voice of reason as Doc.

Director Kiel Klaphake adds plenty of original touches to this production. I especially like how during "Something's Coming" he doesn't just have Tony deliver the song planted in one spot and singing it straight to the audience but has him moving around the entire stage, as if he's searching for what he knows is about to come. From the required raw emotions that bubble up to the many comical moments, Klaphake gets genuine performances from all of his cast as well. His scene changes are well choreographed to keep the show moving along at a fast clip and his rumble scene is nicely staged to make it appropriately nerve racking. Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby has created plenty of original steps and weaves in a few of the famous original Jerome Robbins moves. While some of the new steps aren't quite as good as Robbins' original ones, and the dream ballet of "Somewhere" is a little unfocused, Overby's steps work well to bring the story, and the characters, to life.

Creative elements are beautiful, with Jim Hunter's set and lighting designs painting the stage with a multitude of moody colors that help bring the somewhat depressed settings to life. His backdrop that portrays the skyscrapers of Manhattan is superb. Lottie Dixon's costumes provide a mix of period appropriate fabrics and patterns as well as specific color palettes for the Jets and the Sharks and their women. Music director James May does a superb job of developing rich harmonies by the large cast and conducting the orchestra so they achieve a full sound and never miss any of the nuance of Bernstein's score.

West Side Story is a classic musical with a simple message of acceptance and tolerance at its core that is still relevant today. Arizona Broadway Theatre's production has a talented cast, beautiful creative elements, and clear direction, bringing this poignant story to life in a moving way.

West Side Story runs through November 15th, 2015, at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling 623 776-8400.

Stage Direction: Kiel Klaphake
Choreography by Kurtis W. Overby
Music Direction: James May
Lighting and Set Design: Jim Hunter
Costume Design: Lottie Dixon
Sound Design: Dave Temby and Joshua Tobin
Wig Design: Amanda Gran
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake
Casting and Artistic Producer: Cassandra Klaphake
Stage Management: Jamie Mann

Cast: (in order of appearance)
The Jets:
Riff: Adam Shaff
Tony: Jesse Michels
Action: Kirk Bixby
A-Rab: Colin Shea Denniston
Baby John: Danny Hammond
Snowboy: David Bevis
Big Deal: Nicholas Berke
Anybodys: Sarah Powell
Graziella: Liz Fallon
Velma: Lily Lewis
Minnie: Ahnastasia Albert
The Sharks:
Bernardo: Pasqualino Beltempo
Maria: Brittany Santos
Anita: Melissa Rapelje
Chino: Gerardo Pelati
Pepe: John Paul LaPorte
Indio: Edgar Cavazos
Toro: John Cardenas
Dos: Jake T. Haynie
Juan: T.J. Newton
Rosalia: Natalie Perez-Duel
Consuela: Chelsea Soto
Teresita: Nicole Sartor
Doc: Andy Meyers
Lt. Schrank: James Rio
Officer Krupke: Michael Paul
Glad Hand: Andy Meyers

Photo: coutesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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