By Jacqueline Monahan
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Photos by Stephen Thorburn

West Side Story Brings “Cool” to Spring Mountain Ranch

West Side Story is 52 years old and still cool.

The ground-breaking play made its Broadway debut in 1957; a film version followed in 1961.  Now Super Summer Theatre, in its 34th season, tackles the sometimes lively and joyous, sometimes poignant and sorrowful musical in an outdoor venue at Spring Mountain Ranch, a location that’s very west side in its own right.

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The play is a (somewhat) modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet romance/tragedy.  Accordingly, two gangs of New York infiltrated the desert on a windy evening (July 9) for the production’s media debut.  Along with the occasional bat and dragonfly hoping to share top billing, the Jets and the Sharks squared off as dusk turned to night, passing the responsibility for the expansive sky over to the sun’s lunar understudy.  Hey, it’s a romantic play, alright?

West Side Story is the tale of Tony and Maria, love at first sight, ethnic prejudice, intolerance and an ultimate transcendence into understanding, or at least realization.  There’s dancing, there’s fighting; there are love songs and comic songs and solemn songs.  There’s a fist fight, a knife fight, even a balcony scene.  Do not expect a happy ending.

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The Jets are white, non-Hispanic, to word it in today’s language; rival Puerto Rican gang The Sharks reside uneasily in the same neighborhood.  Both want to establish dominance over the turf.  Tony is a former Jet, a co-founder whose best friend Riff now leads the gang.  Maria’s brother, Bernardo, is the leader of The Sharks.  Sparks fly for both the lovers and their disapproving onlookers.

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Add to this a beat cop named Krupke, an inquisitive but biased Lieutenant Schrank, Doc, a drugstore owner, and Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend, and you have the principals in a story full of misunderstandings and regret, first love and fierce hatred.

Janay Bombino, as Maria, is the standout in a competent cast, with an operatic voice and the sweetness of an innocent trapped in a polarizing rivalry of fear-based violence.  Eddie Gelhaus as Tony is almost too fresh-faced and angelic to believe he was once a gang-member, but you could chalk that up to the giddy effect of a powerful love on a young man.

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Evan Litt as Riff (also the production’s choreographer), is full of aggressive energy, as is the larger-than-life, red-suited Bernardo (Adamme Sosa).  Jennifer De La Torre’s Anita conveyed a passionate urgency in a role which called for many exhortations.  As Lieutenant Schrank, Michael Emerson would do well to quicken the tempo of his lines, not dwelling so much on each word, which can lend them an unintentionally comedic quality.  Jeff Fleming’s Doc is the voice of reason, but his resemblance to both Frank Langella and Richard Kiley - and he’s tall – kept me in denial.  This was not the little man from the film version, which was my problem, not his.  Fleming does a fine job.

Scene changes involving fire escapes, an underpass, a drugstore and a bedroom were completed in a smooth and seamless manner.

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The ensemble cast did an admirable job with the many dance sequences, only lagging during the America number, which is traditionally full of spice and swirl, and here seemed to suffer from a bit of lethargy.  The Dance at the Gym and Gee,Officer Krupke numbers were skillfully executed and riveting, the former for its tense propulsion-like movement and the latter for its comic inventiveness.

Tonight, arguably the flagship musical number, suffered a tiny bit from a rushed balcony scene, where lines of poetic dialogue were lost due to fast-paced delivery.  The eight-piece band was louder than the actors, sometimes off tempo and off key as well.  At other times, the musicians came through in a melodic blaze of glory, as in Cool and The Rumble.

Director Terrence Williams instituted some changes that would only be apparent to the likes of your humble correspondent, a lifelong aficionado of the play.  There’s A Place For Us took place in a dream state/alternate universe instead of Tony and Maria singing it to each other.  There’s a stanza missing from I Feel Pretty and the number takes place in Maria’s bedroom instead of the seamstress shop.  The upbeat and wiseass musical number Officer Krupke is out of sequence to the rest of the action, taking place after some principals’ deaths, not before.

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Still, the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim songs are pure poetry.  Jerome Robbins’ choreography looked intact, but may have been toned down a bit for the actors, who are not professional dancers but pulled off the feat impressively.  The Sharks were actually multi-racial, incorporating African-American, Asian and Caucasian members.  They wore brighter shirts than the pastel-adorned Jets.

West Side Story holds up well in relevance and universal appeal, and Super Summer Theatre’s production provides all of the excitement and heartbreak with an added bonus.  Their star-crossed lovers are under real stars.

Produced by Stage Door Entertainment.   Runs until July 25.

About Super Summer Theater ’09:

Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the gate, and can be purchased at the UNLV Box Office, Prestige Travel at Lake Mead and Rampart, or online at unlvtickets.com.  Children 5 and younger are free.

Guests are encouraged to bring a blanket or chair for use in general-admission grass seating, suitable for enjoying a picnic or treats from the concession stand.

Gates open at 6 p.m. Performances run Wednesday through Saturday beginning at 8 p.m. Spring Mountain Ranch is located 10 miles west of the Charleston/215 exit.  Remaining shows for the 2009 Season include Once on This Island and Working.

For further information:

(702) 594-PLAY  (7529).
http://www.supersummertheatre.com