Review – “West Side Story” in Santa Rosa

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been the source material for umpteen movies and plays. The tale of star-crossed lovers had its most successful theatrical iteration with the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. It’s running now through July 7 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Groundbreaking at its time for innovations in dance and music and its addressing of societal problems, Arthur Laurents transplanted Shakespeare’s Verona to New York’s Upper West Side and transformed the feuding Montague and Capulet families into rival white and Puerto Rican street gangs. Leonard Bernstein composed the music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics made their Broadway debut, and Jerome Robbins handled stage direction and choreography. It was followed by a multi-award-winning film adaptation.

It’s an extremely challenging show to produce. Casting requirements (and the possible criticism of “whitewashing”) along with a very difficult score have led many a company to take a pass.

This no doubt was on director Jared Sakren’s mind as he has done an excellent job in casting numerous latinx performers in this production. Program bios indicate many of these performers are in, or graduated from, the Santa Rosa Junior College theater arts program, or participate in their high schools’ drama or dance programs. This leads to a wide range of on-stage theatre experience and yes, it shows, but it was a tradeoff worth making.

Jonah Robinson as Tony and Carmen Mitchell as Maria

Jonah Robinson (as Tony) and Carmen Mitchell (as Maria) have significant training and experience behind them and it shows, too. Both are in fine voice, though I found Mitchell’s accent a bit forced at times and Robinson was plagued with microphone issues at the performance I attended.

Good character work is done by Denise Elia-Yen as Anita (despite also suffering from sound issues), Justin Thompson in the dual roles of Lt. Schrank and Gladhand, and Al Kaplan as Doc. Notable among the younger cast members were Benjamin Donner (Chino), Katerina Flores (Consuela), and Noah Sternhill (Action).  

Joseph Favalora’s choreography honors Robbins’ original work while making the necessary adjustments for the varied dance experience of the large cast. He was very fortunate to have a fair number of experienced dancers to literally do the heavy lifting.

Music director Ginger Beavers and a seven-piece orchestra more than met the challenge of the Bernstein/Sondheim score and filled the house with such classic numbers as “Maria”, “Tonight”, “America”, “I Feel Pretty”, and “Somewhere”.

Despite the obstacles any production of West Side Story faces, the 6SP artistic team has managed to mount a pretty respectable production.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★½

‘West Side Story’ runs through July 7 at 6th Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. Thursday–Saturday, 7:30pm; Saturday–Sunday, 2pm. $22–$35. 707.523.4185. 6thstreetplayhouse.com

This review originally appeared in an edited verson in the North Bay Bohemian.

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