When performing one of the greatest works in the whole canon of American musical theater, the quality bar is naturally set sky-high. The Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre’s ongoing production of the classic West Side Story easily vaults that bar and continues into the heavens.
West Side Story is an urban retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set against the backdrop of ethnic street-gang warfare in the late 1950s. The show is dated, but never outdated because its themes of star-crossed love and violence fueled by senseless hatred are timelessly universal.
UFOMT impresario Michael Ballam promised his audiences to stage a production of West Side Story that was faithful to the original artistic visions of director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and genius composer Leonard Bernstein.
Ballam achieved that almost impossible goal by delivering philharmonic-quality orchestration under the direction of Karen Keltner; Broadway-caliber acting; opera-quality singing; and dancing equal to the demands of any ballet. The combination of those factors makes this production of West Side Story truly magnificent.
Director George Pinney is blessed with a mostly young and multi-talented cast in this UFOMT production. They are all versatile actors, gifted vocalists and – most importantly – they can dance. That latter skill is critical to any production of West Side Story because Robbins’ extraordinary choreography drove this musical’s narrative to an unprecedented degree when it premiered in 1957.
The dancing by ensemble members in this production lives up to that challenge. It is marvelously stylized, drawing on ballet techniques for its fluid grace and modern jazz music for its aggressive personality.
UFOMT veterans Benjamin Adams and Olivia LaBarge literally personify the excellence of this production in their portrayals of the doomed lovers Tony and Maria.
Both actors give their characters an air of carefree teenage optimism that contrasts sharply with the sullen hopelessness of the show’s other performers. They have real on-stage chemistry, making their shared scenes a delight to watch.
Moreover, in the midst of a cast filled with exceptional voices, Adams and Ms. La Barge stand head-and-shoulders vocally above their co-stars. Adams is a tenor with remarkable range and power; Ms. LaBarge is an exquisite soprano. Their duets are simply breathtaking.
Two newcomers make electrifying UFOMT debuts in West Side Story. They are Marianthi Hatzis, as Maria’s confidant Anita, and Broderick O’Neal as Riff, a gang leader and Tony’s street “brother.” Both actors imbue their characters with convincing passion and lead their respective dance ensembles with style and gusto.
As the eldest of the production’s more mature actors, local favorite W. Lee Daily delivers a typically fine performance as the anguished Doc, a helpless witness to the musical’s final tragedy.
The last time that West Side Story was performed in Cache Valley by a national touring company, that production drew public protests over obscene hand gestures and the translation of some of the show’s songs into Spanish. While this UFOMT production is realistically gritty and some scenes are disturbingly intense, its content stays as close to family friendly as any show could that includes three on-stage murders and an attempted sexual assault.
Additional performances of “West Side Story” are slated at the Ellen Eccles Theatre in downtown Logan through Aug. 3. For ticket information, visit utahfestival.org.