A.D. Players Production of West Side Story Faithful and Unabridged for Better or Worse

The cast of A.D. Players' production of West Side Story.
The cast of A.D. Players' production of West Side Story. Photos by Joey Watkins Photography
The way the story goes, the good folks over at A.D. Players were about to set their 2018-2019 season — one without West Side Story — when they realized that no show on the docket scared them. So, in an effort to challenge themselves, they made a last-minute replacement, adding the very scary West Side Story. And no, that’s not sarcastic.

Set in 1950s Manhattan, West Side Story is a retelling of sorts of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Montagues and the Capulets have been replaced with the white, second-generation American Jets and the Puerto Rican immigrant Sharks, rival gangs in the midst of a turf war. Right into the middle of this mess come former Jet Tony (Daniel Z. Miller, overflowing with hopelessly naive, “gee whiz” energy) and Maria (Nicole Maridan, full of life and hopelessly romantic), the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo.

Look, I already said it — it’s Romeo and Juliet with singing and dancing. That may sound reductive, but the keywords there are “singing and dancing” because that’s the reason this show still matters as much as it does. Jerome Robbins’ precise and demanding choreography drives this bus, and set to a rangy score from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim — seriously, just look at those names, and we haven’t even mentioned Arthur Laurents who wrote the book. West Side Story has quite the musical theater pedigree behind it, and it rightly deserves its place among these best Broadway shows of all time.

So why is it so damn disappointing to watch?

The simple answer is that it is outdated, with threads of bigotry firmly woven through its DNA. I’m not saying anything new. These are conversations that come up with more frequency every year, and concerns that must be addressed (most recently, by one Steven Spielberg). The A.D. Players are just as constrained by these issues, leaving Director Emily Tello Speck’s production to gleam with flashes of problematic brilliance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the production’s two real showstoppers: “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”.

“America” is led by the excellent April Josephine’s Anita, opposite a worthy foil in Christina Austin Lopez’s Rosalia. It is beautifully staged, amusing, and infectious. All at the expense of Puerto Rico, which it repeatedly denigrates. During this number, at least one person in the audience (me) thought, oh that’s right — this was written by white men of a certain time. Men who either (best-case scenario) didn’t notice or (worst-case scenario) truly believed that Puerto Rico was an ugly little island of tropical diseases, hurricanes, no infrastructure and no electricity, and that its biggest problem was all the Puerto Ricans (the babies crying, hundreds of people in each room, too many cousins, and don’t forget the violent crime).

The showstopper of the second act, “Gee, Officer Krupke”, is first and foremost a victim of its placement in the show. Something the 1961 film rightly corrected. In this version, however, this outrageously funny ditty (performed with considerable comedic chops by Doug Atkins, Gavin Calais, Brian Corkum, Miles Marmolejo, and Daniel Miller) is sandwiched between the murder of the Jets’ leader, Riff, and the threat of a gang rape. So, off to a bad start. But more importantly, the Sharks as a gang are never granted a moment of humanity like this, however twisted. It’s unfortunate, because so many good performances are mixed in here.

click to enlarge The cast of A.D. Players' production of West Side Story. - PHOTOS BY JOEY WATKINS PHOTOGRAPHY
The cast of A.D. Players' production of West Side Story.
Photos by Joey Watkins Photography
The cast, while ostensibly led by Miller and Maridan’s star-crossed lovers, is truly an ensemble with no weak link. Jeff Smith is a commanding, composed gang leader as Riff. His adversary, Arik Vega’s Bernardo, is just as cucumber cool on the surface, just with less patience for meaningless formalities. Vega plays off Josephine’s Anita well, and Josephine herself turns in the most nuanced performance of the evening. The few adults in the show shine as well, including Philip Lehl’s benevolent (if exasperated) walking-wisdom dispenser Doc; the easily mocked Officer Krupke, played by Jeff McMorrough; and Josh Morrison's dual duties as the unapologetically racist Detective Schrank and hapless social worker Glad Hand.

Music Director and conductor Stephen W. Jones leads a 14-piece ensemble in bringing to life Bernstein’s tunes while the soaring vocals of the cast do justice to Sondheim’s lyrics. The last step is the dance, where Tello Speck took on the charge of recreating Robbins’ original choreography to mostly successful results. The precision and synchronization wasn’t always there, but the feeling was, from the stylized aggression that opens the show to the snazzy moves at the gym dance party you can definitely tell this is a Jerome Robbins joint.

Danielle Hodgins’ set is a towering three stories of chain-link fence. It’s sleek and shiny, much like the production, and a reflective playground for Michael Clark’s lighting. It seems the set is always awash in color, both from Clark and from Matt Logan’s bright, poppy costumes.

The A.D. Players production of West Side Story is the toe-tapping, finger-snapping culmination of Houston’s year-long celebration of two musical theater luminaries. It goes back to last May, when the Houston Chamber Choir hosted Jamie Bernstein to celebrate the 100th birthday of her famous father and continued through Theatre Under the Stars’ impressive mounting of the anthology Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. But where the Choir teased “Somewhere” and TUTS teased the “Suite of Dances”, the A.D. Players is putting the whole West Side Story shebang out there, faithful and unabridged. For better or for worse.

West Side Story continues through July 28 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Jeannette & L.M. George Theater, 5420 Westheimer.  For more information, call 713-526-2721 or visit $36 to $75.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.