The Ordway Performing Center for the Arts has undertaken a true stand out in the American musical canon. Based off William Shakespeare’s great drama, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is the kind of production that checks many of the boxes that an institution as large and renowned as the Ordway would hope to check. Classic show from pillars of the craft? Check. Memorable songs performed by top-notch talent? Check. Iconic choreography that stands the test of time? Doubly checked. Oh yeah, and there’s diversity. Kind of. But, we’ll talk more about that a little later.
The production opens with a high energy number that sets the tone of the production. I felt the pulse of the first five minutes throughout the first half hour of the act. After that, we’re briefly introduced to the young, fiery Jets in “Jet Song.” It is a fun moment that gives the audience a sense of who these kids are and the ruckus they ensue. Riff, leader of the Jets, is a cool guy who holds the trust and respect of his fellow gang. He sells the idea that the Jets need to win a rumble with the Sharks in order to further claim their territory. Tyler John Logan plays Riff with an engaging charisma. We buy the fact that this is a young man who not only loves the thrill of war but also feels that it is necessary for survival. These two qualities show the audience why the Jets would gravitate to a guy like him.
Then, Riff goes and finds our young lover, Tony. He is a character who is in the world but not of it. Having seen the Jets and their antics firsthand, Tony is a kid that seems wise beyond his years. Local treasure Tyler Michaels invests this mammoth of a role with deep earnestness. However, I found myself wondering if I wanted Tony to be as earnest as Michaels delivered. Similar to Romeo in R&J, Tony no longer takes part in the reckless actions of his clique but I should still feel the toughness that comes from a person who was born into a world as grimy and problematic as the violent setting of the story.
Once Riff leaves, we are left alone with Tony as he gives us the classic number, “Something’s Coming.” Tyler Michaels has impressed our community in numerous productions but I boldly proclaim that he has never sounded as good as he does in this production. Michaels knocks the musical numbers out of the park as if the songs were tailored to his voice. My only wish is that his scene work was met with that same home run power.
Another unfortunate similarity to Shakespeare’s tragedy is the fact that you’ve got to wait a little while for the women to speak. Then, when they finally do speak, they are usually talking about the boys. This begins to stretch beyond critique of the production itself and land more-so in a consistent observation of the American theatre, so I won’t digress too much. However, what I will say is that it’s unfortunate to see our robust wealth of dedicated, talented women consistently push the stoic (and boring) narrative of old white guys. If we continue to buy it then the pushers will continue to push it. Hence why the Guthrie is producing this proven money-maker next summer. Oh look, I’m digressing again..
Digression aside, the ladies in this production are outstanding. Evy Ortiz leads the way with a timeless Maria that’s filled to the brim with sincerity and a voice that’s clear as a bell. Ortiz also feels the most youthful in her portrayal and it is this effectiveness that makes her final moments of the musical so devastating. Perhaps my favorite performance, though, comes from the fiercely engaging Desiree Davar. The power that Davar pumps into Anita is remarkable, commanding the stage with admirable effortlessness.
The majority of the original choreography is utilized in this production. I’m a fan of this approach if the choreography is executed at a high level and the ensemble doesn’t disappoint. Hats off to Diane Laurenson for having the dancers in tip top shape, tackling the moves with gusto. Particularly at the school dance where the Jets and Sharks dance separately together (you read that correctly), there is a grand excitement to the movement. When the ensemble fades away and our lovers are left alone in the gym, the contrast of the slower moving pair from the elevated energy of the ensemble makes for a well-executed moment that becomes a highlight of the show.
Overall, this is an incredibly solid production. Really, it is a beautiful musical that the Ordway executed with the utmost care. But, here’s the thing. After the artists’ bow and applause fades, after the lights come up and I slowly begin exiting the theater, I take a look around. I’m surrounded by a sea of 40+ white people. Like, hundreds upon hundreds of them. Then, I considered the show I just saw. I wondered who this was all really for. One of the most powerful moments in the show is when both of the rivaling sides come together to lift Tony’s lifeless body after Chino murders him and they march forward into the world as one. It becomes a lesson in unity and love for your fellow humans. It would have been cool to see more people from varied communities come together to see this production. More young people, too. I do believe that there were school showings for this brief run, but the cheapest evening show ticket is 30 bucks. Consider the characters in this play and think “Would Riff pay to see this show? Would Anita? I doubt Chino would.”
A major theatre reviewer in town recently released an article about the Ordway that lacks balance, to say the least. In this article, the Ordway is quoted as making the decision to “grow local Latino talents.” Yup, that’s literally part of the headline. The article is a fluff piece that honors the Ordway’s actions to put diversity onstage and in the audience. And, you know, they do train people for free. And, yes, they do hire local black and brown people. So, I can’t be mad at that. At all. But, in the end, I’m going to keep my fingers crossed in hopes that this is just the beginning of a forward moving tide for this highly regarded institution because the masturbatory patting of the back and celebratory culture that comes with throwing some colored folks onstage has become a nauseating revolving door that refuses to stop. Too many theaters in town are underachieving and being let off the hook. It’s not enough to put POCs on your stage. How about POCs in leadership positions? POC storytellers? We have the opportunity to be a national leader who brings true equality to the forefront of our arts community. So, let’s not settle because now is certainly not the time to be complacent.