I love a good evening out at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. For years now, they’ve put on top notch shows that aren’t just good ‘for the suburbs,’ but are great anywhere, with top notch acting, amazing choreography and set design, and superb musicality. I look forward to reviewing these shows and oftentimes find them extremely memorable and exciting, and I particularly enjoy the sort of “theater in the round” experience that literally shows the story from all angles. Victor Malana Maog directs the production, with choreography by Alex Sanchez.
I think everyone has those parts of their cultural oeuvre that are sort of untouchable. Usually, it’s because the artwork or performance resonated with them in a powerful way, and there’s nothing that can quite match the feeling of that particular version. That’s West Side Story for me. It was this magical, colorful, impactful piece of film with a powerful message that left me breathless on first viewing. I love to revisit it sometimes just to get a taste of that feeling. It’s why I was excited but a little nervous to see what transpired on the stage for opening night of West Side Story at the Marriott Lincolnshire.
Putting personal feelings aside, West Side Story is a hard show to stage. It’s demanding musically, with a brilliant but brutal soundtrack, courtesy Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, that’s full of soaring melodies, complex syncopations and range-challenging main themes. It’s even more demanding from a dance perspective, with impeccable choreography that requires the entire cast to have a ridiculous amount of athleticism and grace. And then, the acting and chemistry have to be right. It’s a tall order, but something I’ve known the Marriott Lincolnshire to be able to live up to with similarly challenging shows like Singin’ in the Rain in 2016.
Casting has been a strong point for Marriott shows, and remains strong for West Side Story with few exceptions. As hard as it is to cast someone for a show like this, most everyone was a strong choice, though for both leads we felt like one part of the “triple threat” equation was missing. Jake David Smith’s Tony was fantastic vocally and danced masterfully but didn’t feel like he had enough of an edge. Tony is pretty, sure, and has a certain sweetness even in Richard Beymer’s portrayal in the 1961 film, but he remains a gangster. Smith played it a little bit too gently and as a result, his performance was almost too naive. And though Lauren Maria Medina was graceful and comical she didn’t quite carry the vocals the way we’d hoped, and her accent felt a little too exaggerated, even compared to Natalie Wood’s in the film version. And despite fellow actor Jake David Smith bringing all he could to the pairing, it seemed that the chemistry between the two was off.
Similarly, the usually flawless performance of the pit orchestra under the direction of music director Ryan T Nelson was slightly flawed on opening night, with some miscues and misfires that mirrored some of the missteps on stage. Certainly first night jitters play a role in all this, and in general choreography and dancing on the part of the whole cast were energetic, exciting and well-executed overall, especially where it mattered most, in numbers like “America,” in the initial dance scene where Tony met Maria, and in pieces like “I Feel Pretty.” There was a little less of the amazingly acrobatic dance combat than we’d hoped for in a stage version, but overall it was still impressive and entertaining.
If I had to pick a favorite part of West Side Story at the Marriott Lincolnshire, in this case I’d pick a role. Vanessa Aurora Sierra shone brilliantly every moment she was on stage as Anita. She has impeccable comic timing, laudable dance and vocal chops and brought such a beautiful realness to all her scenes, whether it was a sensuality to her interactions with Gary Cooper’s Nardo or the fierce love and simultaneous annoyance any sibling will understand. It elevated Anita’s story to the forefront and in my opinion, brought that much more of an impact to the tragic ending of West Side Story. Another fantastic player on stage was Marisa Fee’s Anybodys, who stole the show with her fantastic portrayal, pitch perfect for today and full of the same humor and light.
Set design, done masterfully by Jeffrey D Nmiec, was surprisingly minimal but as always, impactful, with a few key pieces giving a sense of place. Amanda Vander Byl’s costuming was also fantastic, matching the tone of the beloved film, with a slight foible in makeup. Women in the Sharks wore what looked like gems on their foreheads, which proved a distraction many times under the bright lights and took me out of the story for a moment at several points.
Still, West Side Story is a very formidable show, and one that I’d recommend. While the opening night performance we saw didn’t quite live up to some of the heights of other great, demanding musicals we’ve seen at this theater, it’s still a colorful, dynamic, powerful show that’s a good time for all, whether you, as I, hold the film dear, or not. With a greater message of tolerance and non-violence, I hold hope that West Side Story will resonate for others the way it did with me. The show at Marriott Lincolnshire could be the one to do it.
West Side Story plays at the Marriott Theatre in north suburban Lincolnshire through March 27 with performances Wednesday-Sunday. Tickets are $50-60 and you can reserve yours here.
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