West Side Story

Despite some questionable choices regarding the play’s theme, Hale Centre Theatre West Valley’s production of “West Side Story” is a grand, moving show with a lot of heart.

This is a musical drama — a tragedy, even — and a difficult one to pull off, as it requires acrobatic dancing and expert singing. As a result, it’s not performed much in Utah. (In the past four years, I’ve seen “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” eight times as a reviewer and “West Side Story” once. That is not a judgment, just an observation.)

Set in 1957 (when the show premiered on Broadway), this modern version of “Romeo and Juliet” introduces us to the Sharks and the Jets, two warring gangs on the mean streets of New York. The Jets are native New Yorkers, and the Sharks are Puerto Ricans; there is to be no fraternizing between the two.

But Tony (Brett Bradford), a reformed Jet, meets Maria (Ashlee LaPine), the sister of Shark leader Bernardo (Josey Suarez), at a dance, and it goes downhill from there. At the end of Act 1, one member of each group lies dead in the street.

There are some deeply effective moments in this production, directed by Tamara Adams with musical direction by Jennifer Parker Hohl and choreography by Marilyn May Montgomery. Tony and Maria’s balcony scene (with the legendary song “Tonight”) is genuinely romantic and beautiful, and their first encounter at the dance is a nice blend of music, dance and lighting.

Both actors, in fact, perform their roles with confidence and ability. Joy Montoya is also a stand-out as Maria’s confidante Anita, and Andrew Barrus excels in the opening scenes as Riff, the Jets’ scrappy leader.

Montgomery’s choreography recalls the moves in the film version without copying them, and while a cast this large (two dozen or so) is bound to have some weak spots, overall the dancing is impressively enjoyable.

The show is written so that the racial tension is more prominent than the romance. The bittersweet truce between the Sharks and Jets at the end should be seen as the realization of a goal — something the show had been building toward the whole time. The “Somewhere Ballet” certainly demonstrates that Maria hopes for peace, and even believes it can happen.

Due to some alterations, though, this production has a diminished social-commentary aspect and a heightened emphasis on the doomed love story. The relatively light-hearted “Gee, Officer Krupke” has been moved to Act 1, leaving Act 2 almost devoid of anything but tragedy — especially since the “Somewhere Ballet,” which showed a glimmer of hope, has been cut altogether.

The result is that when the truce comes during the finale, it seems to come out of nowhere, like the obligatory thing that happens at the end of a show about warring entities. It seems too perfunctory and unmotivated.

The changes made, while perhaps unwise, nonetheless show an attitude of admirable bravery on the part of the collaborators. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? The scene in which a group of Jets attacks Anita is boldly done. It’s not graphic, nor does it go too far, but it’s exactly the kind of thing you wouldn’t be surprised to see completely white-washed in a Utah theater. The fact that such a risky moment remains intact is reassuring.

I got to shush an old lady during this play. It was near the end, when it's very emotional and sad, and the old lady behind me started talking about the dress someone was wearing, or something like that. Later, she was crying, but I think it was because the play was sad, not because I shushed her.