EXTENDED! Must close August 19th
July 6 - August 19, 2012
West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Oanh Nguyen*
Choreographed by Kelly Todd*
Musical Direction by Robyn Wallace
- 06/07/12 ARTICLE: West Side Story named #3 Top Summer Event
- 07/12/12 ARTICLE: Chance Theater Lights Up West Side Story
- 07/16/12 REVIEW: Back Stage CRITIC'S PICK!
- 07/16/12 REVIEW: TheaterMania
- 07/16/12 REVIEW: StageSceneLA WOW!
- 07/18/12 REVIEW: Los Angeles Times CRITIC'S CHOICE!
- 07/20/12 REVIEW: Los Cerritos News
- 07/20/12 REVIEW: Orange County Register
- 07/25/12 ARTICLE: 'West Side Story' speaks to arts kids
- 07/26/12 ARTICLE: West Side Story Extends Through August 19
- 07/31/12 ARTICLE: LA Times profile about choreographer Kelly Todd
- 08/04/12 REVIEW: Stage and Cinema
- 08/04/12 REVIEW: Stage Happenings
- 08/06/12 REVIEW: Broadway World
- 08/06/12 REVIEW: Examiner
- 08/08/12 REVIEW: OC Weekly
Summer Stages: BWW's Top Summer
by Broadway World
Ah, summer! While the weather in Southern California gets warmer, the cooler interiors of local theaters in Orange County will offer their final shows to close out their 2011-2012 season. Below is a list of our Top 5 Summer Must-See Picks, plus a few noteworthy shows to check out, too!
3. West Side Story
Chance Theater, Anaheim Hills
July 6 – August 12
In its latest production, the Chance Theater is promising to bring a completely re-imagined and unexpected staging of this groundbreaking musical. As powerful and timely today as ever, WEST SIDE STORY will be presented with a fresh, contemporary look in its exploration of ethnic tensions and youthful passion set against the rivalry between two opposing NYC gangs.
For more information, visit www.ChanceTheater.com.
Chance Theater Lights Up West
by Steve Julian, LA STAGE
[ Link to LA STAGE ]
Sharks and their ladies in West Side Story
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
In 1957, Arthur Laurents re-imagined Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when he penned the book for West Side Story. Two years before he died in 2011, Laurents re-imagined West Side Story itself, by teaming up with Lin-Manuel Miranda (of In the Heights fame). Together, they crafted a more bilingual revival of the show that pits the Jets versus the Sharks to give the Puerto Rican Sharks, in particular, a cultural authenticity they lacked in 1957.
The original work teamed Laurents’ libretto with Leonard Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography. An innovative film with Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno hit movie theaters four years later.
The re-imagining continues this summer in an industrial part of Anaheim, not the blue-collar New York West Side neighborhood in which the play is set. But inside the 50-seat Chance Theater, director (and founding artistic director) Oanh Nguyen works to give the original script more grit and fine tune its ambience to showcase the love affair between Tony (Keaton Williams) and Maria (Gina Velez).
“I think what we’re doing is being really truthful to these kids’ lives and how desperate they were,” says Nguyen. “We’ve been talking in rehearsals about the notion that, if the audience is afraid of you, then you’ve probably done your job. Gangs come from a world of poverty. They’re dirty and gritty.”
To pull the audience into a tense, claustrophobic setting, Nguyen’s design team puts the action mostly in an alley between two sets of seats and moves the audience in so that actors have running room behind them.
“We tried to build the emotional layer and then the dream layer,” he notes. “The emotional layer is where the singing and fighting happens and the dream layer represents the kids who dare to look beyond their own expectations. That builds to the dream ballet in Act 2 and it becomes all too real from that point on.”
There’s also a hyper-theatrical approach to creating a distance between the young adults and teenagers, he says, “really looking at how the adults perceive these kids and their problems.”
To Nguyen, a Chance founding member since 1999 and producing associate at South Coast Repertory, it isn’t about changing time or place. “It’s getting to the root of the idea of this musical with all new staging and choreography.”
And lighting. For the first time, Nguyen is able to mount a production with nearly all LED lighting.
Jets prepare for a rumble in West
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
When lighting designer KC Wilkerson attended the USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology) conference in Long Beach earlier this year, he was dumbfounded to see the advances in LED (light-emitting diode) technology.
“Before I went to the conference,” says Wilkerson, “Oanh and I talked about making West Side Story more industrial and contemporary to speak to today’s theatergoer. I started thinking about using fluorescents and sodium vapor lights. But the conference was eye-opening. We’d been hearing for years that LEDs would be able to light a theatrical show and do skin tones realistically.”
Wilkerson found himself looking at scenes, swearing to himself they were lit by incandescents, only to learn LEDs were in use. “They had a regular aimed at a white wall and an LED sitting right next to it. They put gels in the conventional fixture and then did a color match through a console. You look at it on your skin and it’s kind of mind boggling. Somebody has finally figured this out!”
Nguyen’s telephone rang. “I called Oanh first, told him what I was thinking, and said I’d love to try this. I asked if it was even feasible. The fixtures weren’t even on the market yet and wouldn’t be until May. I thought that was pushing it too close.”
A full rack of LED lights for West Side Story would cost the theater nearly a quarter million dollars. That wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, Wilkerson banked on his contacts and business relationships. “I knew if we were going to make this happen, and Oanh was fully on board, it would have to come from people who were very, very generous.”
Wilkerson, now in his tenth lighting assignment for Chance, telephoned a contact at BCT Entertainment , a concert lighting and sound design company in Anaheim. “I proposed they be a corporate sponsor for the show and loan us 25 of the new LED fixtures. They enthusiastically jumped at the chance.”
Wilkerson then phoned Matthew Gorka, a friend and master electrician at Pomona College. “I knew he had some other LEDs (Selador, not the Source 4 lights provided by BCT). He went to his leadership there and they also responded enthusiastically in loaning us equipment. All they wanted was to have copies of our marketing material in which they’re mentioned so they can put it in their campus paper. There’s a lot of energy at Pomona using new technology to support the arts.”
Within 10 days, Wilkerson and Nguyen had commitments for the LED lighting to illuminate West Side Story. “We replaced every conventional fixture with LEDs,” says the lighting designer. “The only non-LEDs are a couple of moving lights to give the show some more texture.” And it was free.
“Not only free,” Nguyen punctuates, “but we’re saving on electricity because these lights run so cool. When you think about intimate spaces like ours, we’re limited in space for hanging lights. So to have one instrument do so much with so little electricity is great. And when you have lighting so close to the audience, there’s so much less heat being generated by these lights. We reduce our air conditioning costs as well.”
Even though The Who’s Tommy in 2010 used several borrowed LED lights, particularly in the pinball machine sequences (courtesy of Elation Professional), Nguyen finds he’s still saving an extra 60 percent of electricity costs for West Side Story, compared to those for Tommy.
Wilkerson’s designs for Tommy created a lot of buzz. He won two LADCC awards — for CGI/video as well as for lighting — plus a Garland, an Ovation for video and an Ovation nomination for lighting. Nguyen won a best director Ovation nomination. The production eventually was remounted at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Some of Wilkerson’s other Chance credits include The Secret Garden, Hair, Merrily We Roll Along and Jesus Hates Me, which was remounted at South Coast Rep with lighting design again by Wilkerson.
For West Side Story the production requires only half the circuits the theater has available, 20, for 80 LED fixtures. And best yet, says Wilkerson, “No gel orders.”
Jets and their girls try to stay "Cool"
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
Nguyen knows he will have to give back the lights after the run. Wilkerson estimates it would take the theater three to five years to recoup a quarter million dollar investment in the lights, given the energy savings. But Nguyen is looking at a larger picture. “We are doing a feasibility study right now in preparation for a capital campaign to move to a larger space. We’re looking at a building now, and I can’t say much more, but we’re working with the city [of Anaheim] to see if there’s a good partnership. We really want to expand our number of seats.”
While he attempts to make the stage setting rather claustrophobic for the audience, backstage always has been an excessively tight squeeze. “It’s really bad this time because this is our largest cast — 25. Our backstage is tiny, only five feet or something. There’s usually a shop back there. Once the build is complete, they take out all the equipment. We’re using every single inch possible.”
But funding, as at almost any other theater, requires innovative answers. “That’s why we do a lot of talkbacks,” says Nguyen. Managing director Casey Long, he adds, leads Chance’s outreach efforts. Nguyen points to this spring’s production of Zayd Dohrn’s Reborning. “We teamed up with the Orange County Child Abuse Prevention Center. For West Side Story we’re trying to partner up with underprivileged youth and gang prevention efforts.”
These efforts, he says, are vital because they go to Chance’s values, “like getting deeper into our core community and bringing in new audiences. We will offer a certain number of free and half-off tickets to get people in here for the first time. We’ll have post-show discussions and a couple of pre-show discussions, making as much effort as we can to have this dialogue.”
No easy feat with a five-person staff, “but we do what we can. We do theater to promote dialogue and I feel there’s a lack of that. Shows like Jerry Springer, we had people who wanted to stay and talk, even people who felt the work was outside their comfort zone. Just knowing that there was a discussion afterward, they knew there would be a place for them to ask their questions. We’ve seen people come back days or weeks later to continue the conversation. In these days when subscriptions are dying, this is a way to get more connected with people.”
Nguyen grew up in Orange County’s Little Saigon and attended a mostly minority-filled high school in downtown Anaheim. The experience leaves him questioning whether the common perception that Orange County is a conservative region is accurate. “I wonder if the conservative majority is really the conservative voting majority. I just don’t think people realize the diversity that’s here and the number of kids who grow up in motels. The perception of OC is based on the people who speak the loudest.”
Nguyen listens to what audiences tell him. Yet “It’s the people who don’t tell you what they want and what they like or don’t like that are the ones I want to reach out to and talk to. There’s a truth that’s not being said and we have to figure out what that is. Is it price? Is it programming? Do they not feel connected to us to see the benefits of membership? Is it just the economy? Our membership dropped a bit after 2008 and we’re building that back up slowly. People tend to be polite and civil when they leave their membership and so we don’t always find out the truth behind their leaving.”
And, like Maria in West Side Story, “We don’t always get the answer we want.”
West Side Story
by Eric Marchese, Back Stage
Velez and Keaton Williams
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
In the more than 50 years since the landmark musical "West Side Story" first appeared, it has been revived countless times and become a staple of musical theater companies of all sizes. Productions that break the fourth wall, however, are few and far between. Other elements frequently missing are age-appropriate casting and the ability to generate a visceral sense of tension and danger. Director Oanh Nguyen and a stellar production team address all of these deficiencies in a powerful production that surrounds the audience and immerses them in the action. Bradley Kaye's scenic design brings the cast right up to the front rows of seats on opposite sides of the Chance Theater stage, but it also places them behind the seats on both sides, above viewers' heads. Combined with Nguyen's fluid staging and Kelly Todd's dynamic choreography, this approach effectively prevents spectators from regarding the story and characters as physically and emotionally remote.
Nguyen expands upon Jerome Robbins' original conception, Arthur Laurents' book, Leonard Bernstein's music, and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics without losing any of what makes them great. Musical highpoints include a breathless "Something's Coming," a sultry "Dance at the Gym," a reverent "Maria," a soaring "Tonight," a cheeky "America" and a quasi-religious "One Hand, One Heart." The sweet playfulness of "I Feel Pretty" and the goofy anti-establishment "Gee, Officer Krupke" provide a welcome respite from the gang brutality that surrounds these numbers. Conceptual brilliance is displayed in "Somewhere" and the finale, which tie together themes of violence, longing, and mortality in ways that are complex, surreal, and poignant.
The cast, 25 strong, contains no weak links. Sporting blue denim and tattoos, the Jets are baby-faced yet muscular and athletic, while the Sharks are, at least in public, well-dressed and adherent to social formality. The hallmark of Keaton Williams' youthful, juvenile Tony is his foolish refusal to see reality. Gina Velez is a sweet, wholesome Maria, more sensible than Tony yet still swept away by the powerful currents of love. Chelsea Baldree is a sassy, streetwise Anita. Robert Wallace's darkly handsome Bernardo smolders with his hatred for whites. Israel Cortez's Chino is a basically decent teen who lacks the guts to resist being in a gang. Gasper Spinosa's Riff is the cool-headed yet ambitious de facto Jets leader. Brian Alexander's Action is a swaggering hothead.
Robyn Wallace's music direction, offstage piano and keyboard playing, and conducting of a five-piece combo add nuance to Bernstein's immortal score while allowing a fresh appreciation of Sondheim's genius for creating lyrics that surprise. Anthony Tran's costumes, KC Wilkerson's lighting and video, and Dave Mickey's sound scheme round out a peerless reconceptualization of this musical theater classic, one for which no superlative is undeserved.
West Side Story
by Jonas Schwartz, TheaterMania
Williams and Gina Velez
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
Given its name, The Chance Theater should obviously take risks -- and what could be riskier than stripping away Jerome Robbins' famous ballets from West Side Story?
By using more modern movements, director Oanh Nguyen and choreographer Kelly Todd have deconstructed the classic musical in a bold move, one that focuses our emotions towards star-crossed lovers Maria (Gina Valez) and Tony (Keaton Williams). Fortunately, the gamble -- aided by superior casting -- pays off.
One would think that staging a big dance show in a tiny space would be a fool's errand. The long thin box of a set, with audiences on both sides and with additional catwalks behind the audience, initially seems only big enough to fit a few actors. But when the cast are in the audience's face, menacing them from in front and behind, there's a sense that violence could come from any angle -- a feeling which is all too appropriate for this tale of the turf war between the Jets and the Sharks.
The choreography feels unpolished, like these are actual street kids expressing their rage. Most striking is the "Cool" number, where the actors are stomping on the stage, slamming chairs like petulant children.
In addition, fight director David McCormick not only stages realistic rumbles, but the rape of Anita (Chelsee Baldree in a sizzling, stirring performance) turns feral; it's clear just how sociopathic the boys have turned due to their anger.
The most changed number, however, is "Dance at the Gym." In the original, namby-pamby organizer Glad Hand begs the kids to play his social game, a version of musical chairs where boys and girls circle each other and dance with whoever ends up next to them. However they ignore his instructions and Jets remain with Jets, Sharks with Sharks. Here, they actually do dance wherever they land. Nguyen uses this opportunity for Anita to taunt boyfriend Bernardo (Robert Wallace) with Jets leader Riff (Gasper Spinosa), heightening their hatred.
However, they also have Maria dance suggestively with Baby John (Eric Michael Parker) which feels inappropriate and dispels the notion of love at first sight between Tony and Maria. Moreover, when Tony and Maria's eventual love ballet occurs, their dancing has been removed and replaced with just dialogue, which doesn't feel as poetic.
But the audience catches up quickly. During one moment when the couple kiss, a smile creeps on Valez's face that exemplifies the discovery of love. Their "wedding" scene is tragically tender and their final moments together are heartbreaking. Both performers also have outstanding singing voices and make Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's songs pop.
Of the large supporting cast, Eric Ronquillo stands out with his hunched shoulders and off-balanced hair as A-rab, who appears to be borderline psychotic, and Elena Murray proves to be a perfect foil for Baldree's Anita as the voice of Puerto Rican Pride in "America."
West Side Story
by Steven Stanley, StageSceneLA
Ronquillo, Eric Michael Parker, Brian Alexander, Jackson Tobiska
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
Following their multiple award-winning stagings of The Who’s Tommy, Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical, and Merrily We Roll Along (among others), The Chance Theater’s Oanh Nguyen and Kelly Todd have once again joined forces, this time to reinvent the Broadway classic West Side Story with equally spectacular results.
Unlike the musical’s recent Broadway revival, a brilliant recreation of the 1957 original with book writer Arthur Laurents directing and Joey McKneely replicating Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, The Chance Theater gives us a West Side Story that is fresh and new from the ground up, from the opening chords of composer Leonard Bernstein’s Jets vs. Sharks “Prologue.”
In less gifted hands than director Nguyen’s and choreographer Todd’s, any messing with perfection could be musical theater suicide. Fortunately, Nguyen has proven himself time and time again to be one of the Southland’s bona fide directorial geniuses, and Todd has received Best Choreography nominations from both the LADCC and the Ovations for her memorable work in Jerry Springer: The Opera and Hair. The result of the team’s latest inspired collaboration is a West Side Story that respects its source material (Laurents’ book and Bernstein’s and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s songs) yet re-imagines the Romeo and Juliet story as if it were a brand new show, which in its creative partnership’s hands, it quite often seems to be.
It helps a great deal that the Chance Theater stage is about the farthest thing imaginable from a Broadway-scale proscenium, seating only fifty or so and reconfigured for West Side Story to place the audience on opposite sides lengthwise. In such a small space, it would have been foolhardy if not downright impossible for Todd to recreate Jerome Robbins’ signature crouches and leaps. And wonder of wonders, her choreography proves every bit as exciting as its illustrious predecessor’s, particularly since Todd has her dozen and a half Jets and Sharks executing their dance moves literally within touching distance of the audience.
West Side Story’s opening “Prologue” is not the only musical number to blur the line between Todd’s dance and David McCormick’s fight choreography, as Jets and Sharks square off in a preview of the Act One closer, “The Rumble,” fists flying and legs kicking so in-your-face, you’d swear you were there smack dab in the middle of the mean streets of New York. “The Dance At The Gym” retains its script-dictated circle-within-a-circle setup, but soon morphs into Jet boys and Shark girls and Shark boys and Jet girls joined in a dance of both enmity and desire, in the middle of which Tony and Maria’s first sight of each other across the gym is as magical as it has ever been. “Cool” has Riff and the Jets—both male and female—expressing teen rage thought the medium of dance, with four banged-about straight-back metal chairs adding fury and noise to the mix. An exquisite, moving “Somewhere” dream ballet imagines a world in which barefoot Jets and Sharks execute graceful pas de deux in harmony and peace. Act Two’s aborted rape scene, another in which violence gets expressed in moves both realistic and dancelike, is more gut-wrenching than ever performed so close to the audience.
For some of these production numbers, Todd has gang members and their girlfriends actually making eye contact with front row audience members, as back-row patrons have Jets and Sharks virtually breathing down their necks from raised platforms behind. The cumulative effect is as thrilling as it gets, and even more so because there’s scarcely even a nod to Robbins in the whole, heady mix.
To bring West Side Story’s iconic characters to life, Nguyen has drawn from the crème-de-la-crème of Orange County talent, casting Tony, Maria, Bernardo, Anita, Riff, and Anybodys with Cal State Fullerton Theater or Musical Theater majors or recent grads, and as those who’ve read my reviews of CSUF productions must know by now, these are among the country’s finest emerging talents, and refreshingly close to the ages of the characters they play. Other pivotal characters, including Jet boys Action, A-rab, Baby John, and Diesel, and Shark girls Rosalia, Consuelo, and Francisca are cast with equally young and talented triple threats, as are the Shark boys and Jet girls.
A handsome, hunky Keaton Williams and a gorgeous, enchanting Gina Velez make magic as Tony and Maria, both vocally and in spoken scenes, a pair of born romantics so made for each other, we hope against hope that this time, at least, their nascent love will meet a different fate. Chelsea Baldree morphs miraculously from Spring Awakening’s virginal Wendla to the spitfire that is Maria to stunning effect. Gasper Spinosa’s charismatic Riff and Robert Wallace’s Latin heartthrob of a Bernardo are this West Side Story’s dynamic duo, and in Wallace’s case, it’s astonishing to realize that this is the same actor who played Scottish Ian just a few months ago in ROOMS: A Rock Romance.
Gomez, Elena Murray, Rebecca Fondiler, Chelsea Baldree
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
As Action, A-Rab, Baby John, and Diesel, Brian Alexander, Eric Ronquillo, Eric Michael Parker, and Jackson Tobiska infuse their roles with teen testosterone and angst, and never more so than in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a showcase for these four talented triple-threats which Nguyen makes an expression of frustration and rage rather than the usual comic relief. Amanda Sylvia completes the gang as a memorably feisty Anybodys, the Jet wannabe whose gender keeps getting in the way of full gang inclusion.
Elena Murray (Rosalia), Rebecca Fondiler (Consuela), and Makenzie Gomez (Francisca) provide fiery, funny, fabulous support to Anita’s “America.” Israel Cortez makes the very most of his moments as Chino, handpicked by Bernardo and Anita to be Maria’s intended, and though his fellow Sharks—Anthony Obnial as Pepe, Alex Uriorstegui as Indio, and Danny Marin as Luis—have less to do than their bigger-roled Jet counterparts, they are no less talented, and the same can be said for the ravishing Jet girls—Kellie Spill as Velma, Dannielle Green as Graziella, Tasha Tormey as Minnie, and Nikki Miller as Clarice.
Adults Doc, Lieutenant Schrank, Officer Krupke, and Glad Hand are not only played to perfection by Frank Minano, Michael Grenie, Joe Buford, and Patrick Birman, they are given a major part in one of director Nguyen’s most revolutionarily reconceived key West Side Story scenes.
Music director Robyn Wallace deserves highest marks for re-orchestrating West Side Story’s original full orchestra arrangements for a mere six instruments, performed live by Wallace on keyboard, David Lee on guitar, Steven Wagner on drums/percussion, Aimee Gomez on violin, Jordan Ferrin on woodwinds, and Robert Todd., Jr. on trombone. Still, for this reviewer at least, this is one instance when big-orchestra prerecorded tracks would do better justice to Sondheim’s soaring melodies than a smaller group musicians playing live.
Sound designer Dave Mickey provides an expert mix of instruments and voices, and though actors are miked, the impression one gets is, refreshingly, of unamplified voices, particularly when individual performers are singing only inches away. Bradley Kaye’s ingenious scenic design has opposite ends of the Chance stage serving as key locales, including Doc’s drugstore and Anita’s balcony, with KC Wilkerson’s state-of-the-art LED lighting and video design one of the most dramatic and spectacular ever, and one that places you smack dab in the middle of the action. (Wilkerson’s lighting also keeps attention firmly on the performers and stage and not on the two rows of spectators seated opposite you.) Anthony Tran’s costumes are an evocation of time and place and expression of the characters who wear them. Christopher Booher has created some terrific hair and make-up designs.
Kari Hayter is assistant director/dramaturg. Courtny Greenough is stage manager. Other behind-the-scenes talents include Breanna Rae Murillo (assistant costume designer), Sophie Cripe (assistant dramaturg), Masako Tobaru (prop master), Teodora Ramos (master carpenter), Heather Dunlap (assistant stage manager/light board), and Bryan Williams (audio technician).
Since the announcement of the Chance Theater’s 2012 season, West Side Story has been this reviewer’s most eagerly awaited production, and as this review makes clear, the final product has exceeded even my highest expectations. Theatergoers are hereby advised to reserve their tickets asap, as this is sure to be a sell-out run. You may think you have seen West Side Story before, but you have never, ever seen this West Side Story, and if you’re a true lover of musical theater you must.
A reinvented West Side Story at the Chance Theater
by David C. Nichols, Los Angeles Times
|Gasper Spinosa and Robert Wallace
Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio
It’s not just the exposure to countless editions of “West Side Story” that causes us to stagger dazed and elated from the Chance Theater. Less a revival than a whole-scale reinvention, this stunning chamber version of the landmark 1957 musical by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents yields breathtaking, deeply moving results.
Dispensing with the original iconography of Jerome Robbins’ epochal staging, director Oanh Nguyen and choreographer Kelly Todd concoct an elemental, viscerally charged production that nonetheless honors the property’s “Romeo and Juliet” source.
Placing the audience on either side of a central thoroughfare, with catwalks behind our heads, Nguyen infuses the feuding Jets and Sharks with near-Brechtian impact. Todd’s inspired work reconceives the street battles and social dances via a choreographic vocabulary as eloquent as it is timeless.
Although musical director Robyn Wallace's six-piece combo cannot mirror Bernstein’s near-symphonic scope, she certainly locates the requisite keynotes.
The designs are lean and evocative, particularly Anthony Tran’s omni-period costumes and KC Wilkerson’s extraordinary lighting.
Ultimately, this “West Side” scores in its triple-threat performers, who bring unflinching investment to the concept, revitalizing Bernstein and Sondheim’s evergreen songs and Laurents’ purple parlance. As star-crossed Tony and Maria, Keaton Williams and Gina Velez are wonderful, angelic of voice, touching in their chemistry. Gasper Spinoza’s restless Riff and Robert Wallace’s imperious Bernardo suggest two sides of the same angry coin; Chelsea Baldree makes a vivid, nuanced Anita; and so forth, throughout a sterling cast.
If they don’t erase the longstanding template, they memorably illuminate its core, from the establishing gestures of the Prologue to a gracefully heartfelt “Somewhere” ballet, with the symbolic ending a pertinent masterstroke. It typifies the ingenuity by which all concerned bring an established classic to electrifying new life.
West Side Story Dazzles
at The Chance Theater
by Brian Hews, Los Cerritos News
Michael Parker, Eric Ronquillo, Gasper Spinosa,
If you like to be “right in the action” of a great musical or play, then West Side Story at the intimate Chance theater is the show for you. Patrons sit on each side of the “New York Alley”, which is about forty feet long by ten feet wide, three rows on each side, with a clear view of all the cast members. If you are in the front row, as I was, the dancer/actors come close enough to touch you.
Did I forget to mention the musical adaptation is great too? Well it is. With terrific musical direction by Robyn Wallace (Rooms: A Rock Romance), deft choreography by Kelly Todd (Jerry Springer: The Opera) and superb direction by Chance Theater’s Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen, the musical takes a fresh, contemporary look at this timeless exploration of ethnic tensions and youthful passion, giving new impact and energy to the story.
Imagine sitting in the theater watching the opening “Prologue”; a primer as Jets and Sharks square off in a preview of the Act One closer, The Rumble. The Dance At The Gym was incredible; I really thought one of the dancers was going to slam into me, but their partner immediately snapped them back. This part of Act One was one of the best of the musical with the climax of Tony (Keaton Williams) and Maria (Gina Velez) meeting in the middle. Next up was of course Tony singing a great rendition of Maria-bouncing around the stage already in love after one meeting, the two seeing each other later in the back window singing the always beautiful Tonight.
The play moved on to a deftly choreographed America by Anita (Chelsea Baldree), Rosalia (Elena Murray), Consuela (Rebecca Fondiler), Francisca (Makenzie Gomez) again showing their skills on a very small stage. The Act ended with Tony and Maria singing One Hand, One Heart. Act two began with Maria, Rosalia, Consuela, and Francisco in the boutique singing I Feel Pretty, with a Gee, Officer Krupke providing a welcome break from the gang brutality that comes with the musical, followed by a great version of Somewhere.
The cast of twenty-five is strong. Blue denim and tattoos for the Jets; well-dressed Sharks. Keaton Williams’ Tony is youthful, Gina Velez’ Maria the girl next door; Chelsea Baldree is an impudent Anita; Robert Wallace’s Bernardo the perfect racist attitude; Israel Cortez’s Chino as usual resists the gang; Gasper Spinosa’s Riff is a great Jets leader, and Brian Alexander’s Action the always present firebrand.
Exciting new direction for 'West
Without changing its vital elements, Chance Theater 'reimagines' the classic 1957 Broadway musical
by Eric Marchese, Orange County Register
Velez and Keaton Williams
Ever since "West Side Story" broke new ground in the world of musical theater, the 1957 show has been a reliable crowd-pleaser for companies of all sizes – everything from major professional theaters and civic light opera companies to high schools, colleges and community and independent theaters.
It isn't likely, though, that any of the stagings from the past 55 years have had the gut-wrenching visceral punch of Oanh Nguyen's new Chance Theater production.
Nguyen and a solid, expert production team have reconceptualized the piece without changing a note of Leonard Bernstein's classic score or a word of Stephen Sondheim's often brilliant lyrics or Arthur Laurents' sensitive book.
The Chance changes are those of nuance and meaning, created by the way the lines of dialogue and song are delivered. Even more powerful is the way Nguyen's cast moves, whether speaking, singing or dancing. As with the original, the show's choreography is a vital element. Kelly Todd's work here diverges from what Jerome Robbins did in the original, yet remains true to that staging's spirit and intent.
The crowning touch is Nguyen's modified in-the-round staging, which often positions his cast behind the last rows of the two audience sections on platforms above the viewers' heads. The concept behind this is one of total immersion, effectively realized by Bradley Kaye's scenic design.
"West Side Story" is, of course, an updated retelling of "Romeo and Juliet." The Chance production emphasizes that everything about the musical is operatic – urban street opera, that is. Keaton Williams and Gina Velez offer sensitive, poignant readings of Tony and Maria. Their first meeting is delicate and tender during a high school dance framed as a way for kids to express their pent-up aggression, anger and libidos.
Tony is so blinded by his love for Maria that he honestly – and foolishly – believes the couple is "untouchable" when it comes to the lethal rivalry of the Jets and the Sharks. Williams still has the looks of an adolescent, making his Tony all the more affecting. Velez is a gentle, modest Maria – just a kid, really, and one who tries to exert good sense but is caught up and enveloped by the rush of romance and desire.
The rest of the cast rises to the occasion, and it's refreshing to see a group of accomplished young actors who can not only act, sing and dance but who can credibly portray teen-agers aching to come into their own.
Dark, curly-haired and good-looking, Wallace's Bernardo seethes with anger and hatred. As Anita, the long-legged Chelsea Baldree, all curly hair and sassy 'tude, is eminently watchable. Her tough hide protects her from danger and allows her to try to keep the naive Maria out of trouble.
As Riff, Tony's second-in-command and best friend, Gasper Spinosa is hard-edged and cool-headed, yet fiery and aggressive, and Brian Alexander's Action is even more explosive and hot-tempered.
Alexander, Jackson Tobiska, Michael Grenie and Eric Ronquillo
Michael Grenie's tough, loud, belligerent Lieutenant Schrank is like every plainclothes cop in every film noir you ever saw. Of the story's four adults, only Doc (Frank Minano) sees what's unfolding between Tony and Maria, realizes its danger and tries, in vain, to stop it.
Whether directed by Nguyen, Todd or fight director David McCormick, much of the cast's movements are done with balletic precision.
The war council and knife fight scenes generate credible suspense and tension. The staging of the song "Somewhere" is brilliant: Its sweetness and light are surreal, and the teens' graceful, relaxed moves are entirely at odds with the raw violence of their characters. The conceptual frame of the play's finale is so effective, one wonders why no one before Nguyen came up with it.
Not all life-or-death, "West Side Story" offers lighthearted comic relief songs like "America," "I Feel Pretty" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" to help dispel the story's bleaker moods.
Each musical number, in fact, offers new insights. Musical director Robyn Wallace and her offstage six-piece combo add subtle shadings to Bernstein's carefully crafted score while highlighting Sondheim's often-brilliant lyrics.
KC Wilkerson's lighting – including blue moonlight, blindingly bright sunlight and a wash of deathly blood-red – can only be termed inspired, and his video designs and projections enhance key scenes. Equally laudable are Anthony Tran's costumes and Dave Mickey's sound design.
Style never trumps themes: At every turn, the mutual mistrust of Americans and Puerto Ricans thwarts any attempts to peacefully co-exist. It's a heartbreaking lesson driven home by this staging's bittersweet mixture of friendship, loyalty, violence, mortality, teen longing, love and deadly hatred.
Side Story' speaks to arts kids
by Frank Mickadeit, Orange County Register
I caught West Side Story at the Chance Theater on Sunday night. I'd seen this edgier, quintessentially Chance-ified version of the classic 1957 musical the Sunday before and was back. What had happened in the interim? 1) Someone had opened fire in a theater in Colorado, killing 12; and 2) street violence had erupted in Anaheim, just a few miles from the Chance, with back-to-back shooting deaths by police and the resulting citizen uprising.
The world as it existed the previous Sunday when I sat in the Chance (with, among others, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait) and let the actors take us to faraway 1950s New York City had changed. No longer would audiences that saw someone shooting a gun in a theater just assume it was part of the show. And citizen confidence in the Anaheim police had been put in serious peril.
West Side Story (spoiler alert) features a character entering the stage and shooting a pistol and killing another character. Pretty obviously, that "bang!" is jarring and unsettling in an intimate theater whose performance area is 325 square feet. The musical also features cops whom the gangsters believe are abusive.
So when I went to see West Side Story the second time, I was wondering whether any of this was resonating with the rest of the audience – this audience being mostly middle-school kids in the Pacific Symphony's arts-X-press summer camp. The program immerses kids in performance art for a week. More than half of the 150 kids come from gang-troubled O.C. cities – the modern-day equivalents of the West Side turf fought over by the Jets and Sharks.
After the show, I interviewed kids. It was probably unrealistic to think that 7th or 8th graders – even those chosen to attend the camp for their creative bents – would be able to come out and articulate deep, on-the-spot insight into how a musical like West Side Story affected them. The themes I flagged above turned out to be mainly my thoughts. (For one thing, counselors had been so concerned about the Colorado shooting they had warned the kids about the gunshot scene.)
But that's not to say I didn't get insight from the kids.
For one thing, I was a bit surprised that the whole eye-for-an-eye gangland ethos so shocking to audiences in 1957 didn't surprise them. Two girls I spoke to, ages 11 and 12, said they knew gang members and, as 12-year-old Andy told me, "all of them end up getting hurt." (Although, thankfully, there was horror on kids' faces during the rape scene and some kids covered their eyes.)
But while the fact that gangs and the violence wrought by them exist didn't seem to resonate strongly with Andy or her 11-year-old campmate, Chloe, there was something else. It was something I hadn't expected, maybe because I never lived it: the notion of being an outsider. There were the Puerto Rican Sharks who were the subject of racial slurs by the entrenched white Jets. And within the Jets, there was the struggle of the tomboyish character Anybodys, who wasn't accepted by the boys or the girls.
"They are different," Andy said to me.
"And you experience that in real life?"
"Definitely, because I dress like a guy, and people say, 'Oh, she's so weird.'"
I turned to Chloe, who lives in a homeless shelter in Tustin. "You too?" I asked.
"I go to school with a lot of darker kids, so I get called 'white chick,' and 'blondie,'" she said. (It makes me) slightly angry. I never show that, I guess."
"So, you don't think things haven't changed that much since 1957?" I asked.
"I think it was worse then," Chloe said. "If we were at a theater then, white people would be going to one theater and dark people would be going to a theater across the street."
There was this sense of pathos about the girls seeing themselves as outsiders, and yet I was impressed that an 11-year-old knew her Jim Crow history.
Later I asked arts-X-press director Molly Potin whether their impressions were unique among her campers. Not at all, she said. One of the reasons she wanted them to see "West Side Story" was because it dealt with "the issue of belonging and being the odd one out."
"These are the artsy kids in their classes," Potin said. "Many of them have been bullied. Ninety percent of these kids are the weird kid in their class."
But not this summer.
Chance Theater's West Side
Story Extended Through August 19
by Bethany Rickwald, Theater Mania
Gomez, Rebecca Fondiler, Gina Velez and Elena Murray
Chance Theater has announced that its production of West Side Story will extend through August 19. Oanh Nguyen directs, with music direction by Robyn Wallace and choreography by Kelly Todd.
With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents, Chance Theater's fresh look at West Side Story aims to give new impact and energy to the beloved story.
As previously announced, the cast is lead by Keaton Williams as Tony and Gina Velez as Maria and also features Gasper Spinos (Riff), Chelsea Baldree (Anita), Robert Wallace (Bernardo), Brian Alexander (Action), Eric Ronquillo (A-rab), Eric Michael Parker (Baby John), Jackson Tobiska (Diesel), Kellie Spill (Velma), Dannielle Green (Graziella), Tasha Tormey (Minnie), Nikki Miller (Clarice), Amanda Sylvia (Anybodys), Israel Cortez (Chino), Anthony Obnial (Pepe), Alex Uriostegui (Indio), Danny Marin (Luis), Elena Murray (Rosalia), Rebecca Fondiler, Makenzie Gomez, Frank Minano (Doc), Michael Grenie (Lt. Schrank), Joe Buford (Lt. Schrank) and Patrick Birman (Glad Hand).
The design team includes Bradley Kaye (set design), Anthony Tran (costume design), KC Wilkerson (lighting and video design), and Dave Mickey (sound design).
In the Spotlight: 'West Side Story'
gets new moves at Chance Theater
Choreographer Kelly Todd faced two big challenges with the Anaheim Hills theater's 'West Side Story.' One is the small stage space; the other is the beloved dance numbers created by Jerome Robbins, which Todd changed.
by Debra Levine, Los Angeles Times
"Well they began it!" snarled the Jets perched on the scaffolding that lines the Chance Theater's long, narrow shoe box of a performance space. Facing them off — and in spitting distance of the audience — the Sharks echoed in return: "Well they began it!" This group-hiss propelled "Tonight," one of 11 fresh and lucid song-and-dance numbers that choreographer Kelly Todd has laced into the Anaheim Hills theater's critically lauded production of "West Side Story" (extended to Aug. 19).
Tasked by Chance director Oanh Nguyen to garnish his update of the theater classic by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents with in-your-face dance numbers, the 20-year musical theater veteran and a UCLA theater grad, found herself boxed in. Not only was Todd's 12-foot wide, 30-foot long working area hugely constrained but she was thrust in the shadow of a genius.
What it was like re-imagining Jerome Robbins' dance numbers?
I was intimidated. I respect Robbins so much. I told my husband, "This is the biggest risk of my career. People will either love it or say, 'Who does she think she is?'"
What was your favorite Robbins number?
I love the "Prologue" [in the film] when they open their arms into a "T" and extend one leg to the side and leap, or, where they jump in a tight pas de chat and snap [fingers].
Did Robbins get in your way?
It's a 60-year-old piece whose movement was exciting in its day. But I wanted something new. My version builds slowly. They [Sharks and Jets] glare at the audience. They start to shove each other. There's lifting and tossing; they're huffing and puffing and grunting like a fight. It is hard, violent movements exerted at full effort.
What comes next in the show?
"Dance at the Gym." The circle around Maria is a nod to Jerome. In the movie [Maria] spins and the world behind her starts to blur. We wanted to be true to that. The Sharks and the Jets do two separate circles. We wondered, what if they really did dance with the person they land opposite? In the movie, it was "Look what I can do with my girl," but in our show it's "Look what I can do with your girl."
How was the Bernstein score to work with?
Challenging — very. There were teeny minutes where I couldn't quite count it — the six-eights, nine-eights, three-fours. Instead of counts, I spoke it out for the actors using words. The music made it the hardest show I ever worked on. I don't know how a choreographer who doesn't read music could do it.
Was it fun staging "America"?
"America" was the first number I knew I wanted to change. They sing as immigrants so excited about their new country. They dream of living on Fifth Avenue but they're doing Latino steps. That didn't make sense to me. I have them strike a very high, elegant, music-box pose. Then they sink into that classic Marilyn Monroe pose where she's holding her skirt down. They move the way they dream they could as American girls.
Your staging of "Cool" is memorable — with metal chairs and heavy breathing!
The percussive breaths go where the snaps went. But snaps are to get someone's attention, not to keep cool. The breathing gives a more physical tone. We looked at photos of '50s gang members. They were all dirty and skinny and smoking. They were marginalized people who did horrible things. So in "Cool" we show them as caged animals ready to explode. They jump from the wall and kick and bang chairs. They're mad at life.
How many of your cast of 25 are trained dancers?
Some are dancers. Others are not. It's always challenging. It's a six show-a-week run, so very demanding. People get tired. There have been injuries. They learned how to warm up.
How was it to stage movement in that long, narrow
We usually have the stage at one end and audience at the other. The in-the-round formation made my job easier. The audience is in the action. What the dancers are feeling, they feel.
Los Angeles Theater Commentary
WEST SIDE STORY
by Tony Frankel, Stage and Cinema
First, scroll down to the bottom of this review; there you will find the information you need to buy your tickets to Oanh Nguyen’s magnificently re-interpreted production of West Side Story at the Chance Theater. Second, after you witness the truthfulness of its performers and the strength in its simplicity, I invite you to hold theater to a higher standard, a standard which includes, as this production does, imagination, vision, community, selflessness, and risk-taking.
On the whole, Los Angeles and its surrounding communities consistently produce the most visionless, self-serving, and/or middling productions in the country. This is not up for debate. As producers in L.A. meet to figure out the future of theater and perhaps form a Theater League (which will create a whole new set of problems, no doubt), the entire Los Angeles theater community would do well to take a tip from the Chance Theater.
Tucked away in an unassuming Anaheim Hills industrial strip mall, this non-Equity theater company consistently produces some of the best theater outside of Chicago. Whether Chance is aware of it or not, they are actually following the models of many successful “storefront theaters” in the Windy City:
- They have their own flexible black box space, rather than renting a traditional 99-seat theater from overcharging, unscrupulous landlords. Bradley Kaye’s West Side Story set has two rows of audience members facing each other—as such, performers are above, below, behind, and on both sides of the spectators; when all 25 actors beautifully rendered the “Tonight” quintet all around us, the result was both thrilling and emotional.
- They have adventurous seasons which include world premieres, west coast premieres and revivals. In conservative Orange County, the Chance produced Jerry Springer: The Opera and Edward Albee’s The Goat—to call that a risk is an understatement.
- They have an artistic director (Oanh Nguyen) who is artistic and can actually direct; his production of Merrily We Roll Along, virtually set-free, was the most cohesive and satisfying of the eight productions I have witnessed. Nguyen actually de-constructs the grandeur normally associated with West Side Story, focusing on the emotional relationship between Tony and Maria, played to perfection by Keaton Williams and Gina Velez; the normally huge New York skyline and roving ladders and balcony were replaced with nothing but exuberant young love—I dare you not to weep.
- They have resident artists (or “ensemble members,” if you follow the Steppenwolf model); one of these is choreographer Kelly Todd, who abandoned the Jerome Robbins copycatting seen in virtually every production of West Side Story for movement that is rough, raw, fiery, seemingly unpolished, and awash in character; the innocence captured in the barefoot “Somewhere” ballet was almost too painful to watch.
- Their non-Equity status proves that Equity actors are not necessarily better at their craft (it was shocking to discover how many amazing Chicago companies are non-Equity as well); The way I see it, Chance is more invested in “powerful, socially-conscious, provocative, intimate theater experiences” than in placating a union which has no compunctions when it comes to sacrificing art for commerce.
- Part of their mission statement is to both nurture local artists and empower creative young minds—many of the cast in West Side Story are attendees or graduates of nearby Cal State Fullerton.
- They have technology partners who can promote and sample their wares: BCT entertainment supplied fixtures manufactured by Electronic Theatre Controls. The result? West Side Story utilizes LED instead of conventional lighting fixtures, and KC Wilkerson’s design heightens emotion and adds character, such as the effect of blinking neon lights emulating a New York scene-scape.
- The Chance wishes to generate participation and dialogue among diverse communities—this is why they offer a talkback after every performance.
Because of the Chance’s amazing work, the community responds in kind, including annual fund donors, benefactors and producers. The extraordinary technical triumph of their Tommy got the attention of Segerstrom Center, which co-produced an extension of that show. When a non-Equity company gets the attention of Steppenwolf in Chicago, the celebrated company actually offers the use of their Garage space—could you imagine Center Theatre Group being so generous and involved with its community?
As producers scratch their collective heads figuring out ways to make Los Angeles a recognizable theater town (it’s already the largest), it’s comforting to know that the answer may just reside near the 91 freeway: vision, dedication, community, artistic excellence, and, above all, great theater. If you build it, they will come.
WEST SIDE STORY
by Shirle Gottlieb, Stage Happenins
Williams and Gasper Spinosa
As I suggested in my review of "Reborning," all lovers of musical theater should plan ahead for The Chance Theater's next production, "West Side Story."
Acknowledging that The Chance is a celebrated, innovative company located outside of the action in the Anaheim Hills, the question was: How will it handle this beloved American classic, one that's become a world-wide favorite over the past fifty years?
Even more compelling, since it was written by musical titans (Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein/Arthur Laurents), how will director Oanh Nguyen treat this legendary icon to make it relevant today?
If you've been to this theatrical outpost, you know that under Nguyen's artistic direction The Chance has built a solid reputation as "the best little theater in Orange County." Some say it's second only to South Coast Repertory.
Lucky for you, this extraordinary production of "West Side Story" has been extended until August 19. Lucky for me, that means extra time to convince you to go.
Where to begin? Hats off and hosannas to Nguyen's brilliant vision, Kelly Todd's physical choreography, Robyn Wallace's musical direction, Bradley Kaye's set, and KC Wilkerson's light/video design. In fact, kudos to everyone involved with this visceral, gut-wrenching production that explodes in front of your face.
Although half a century has passed, nothing intrinsic has changed. The Sharks are still fighting the Jets over turf, the gangs are still out for power and blood, and Tony (the peaceful, young Anglo) still falls head-over-heels for Maria (the pretty young Latina)--all of which spells danger for both factions.
But a big difference is experienced from Oanh's staging. By placing the audience on both sides of Kelly's physical choreography (the dance routines are absolute dynamite), while dangerous gangs roam on high board-walks behind the seats, viewers are smack-dab in the middle of the violence.
Keaton Williams and Gina Velez are perfectly cast as Tony and Maria, the beautiful star-crossed lovers. Williams sets the mood in "Something's Coming," and together they deliver a poignant rendition of "Tonight." As for "One Hand, One Heart," there isn't a dry eye in the house after their solemn pledge to each other.
The tightly knit cast is flawless. Chelsea Baldree is particularly outstanding as Anita, supplying comic relief in "America" and tragic foreshadowing in "A Boy Like That." Robert Wallace is both attractive and menacing as Bernardo; Gasper Spinoza plays the impetuous Riff; Joe Buford is a crack-up as Officer Krupke; and Frank Minano plays Doc, the store-keeper who tries against odds to keep peace between the gangs.
From the dynamic prologue (where the Jets and the Sharks prepare to rumble) to the plaintive "Somewhere" (where the entire ensemble prays to find "a place for us"), this Chance production is a knock-out!
OC's Chance Theater Stages Reworked
WEST SIDE STORY
by Michael L. Quintos, Broadway World
Velez and Keaton Williams
Perhaps it's no coincidence that the word "chance" is in its name.
Once again making the audacious gamble to re-work one of musical theater's most sacred properties, the little award-winning theater company with big visions, the Chance Theater, is currently staging a revamped version of the Laurents/Bernstein/Sondheim classic WEST SIDE STORY for a just-extended run through August 19 in Anaheim Hills.
While this production still retains the original narrative's mid-20th Century New York City setting, this WEST SIDE STORY is, no doubt, a very 21st-Century-flavored re-telling. A hybrid of a chamber musical and lyrical performance art, this well-known musical about a pair of teenage paramours caught between a turf war between their respective culturally-different brethren gets an interesting new update, motivated mostly by the theater's understandably smaller space.
The end results are mostly winning—especially with this added bonus of close proximity between the actors and the audience. The whole production reminds us that just because the canvas is smaller, doesn't necessarily mean the artwork becomes a less favorable piece.
With just two rows of seats lining the length of each side of the centralized stage space, there is little wiggle room for an audience member to escape being literally in the thick of the action. Each breathless dance sequence, each emotional outburst, and every trickle of hard-working sweat is happening right on top of you, spearing its way to the core whether you want it to or not.
Some of it will be awkward and uncomfortable for sure—but, oddly, in a good way. Strange as it is to hear some of these iconic scenes and time-tested tunes rejiggered (not even drastically, mind you), this intriguing new reaction from this fresh new take on an established show is one of several delightful things you'll discover in this enterprising presentation.
Helmed by the theater company's own artistic director Oanh Nguyen and featuring beautifully dynamic new choreography by Kelly Todd, this WEST SIDE STORY starts off with a terrific opening frenzy that's much more compact than previous versions have showcased. Purists will probably miss the extended opening ballet—among many other signatures dances—first introduced by Jerome Robbins that seem to traverse the huge stages they've been performed on with such power and grace. Here, though, the intelligent new staging and hypnotic, constrained choreography is very much tailored to the nooks and crannies and suspended platforms that surround our confined audience, providing stealthy surprises from the show's nimble cast. By the time the story comes to its sad, tragic conclusion, an unexpected lyrical dance sequence adds some artful punctuation.
While the show is certainly not 100% perfect, in essence, this superb attempt at reinvention is, without question, quite spirited and valiantly well-executed. My only gripe—and, really, it's a minor one—is that in its quest to compress the show, some parts of the narrative feel ridiculously hurried and rushed. Though teen angst and puppy love in the real world do feel like a whirling dervish of emotions, the speed at which certain benchmark events unfold in this version (the dance at the gym, for example) doesn't slow down long enough to be adequately absorbed or to be as impactful. Granted, the show's emotional power still very much resonates overall, but at times, before one sequence really sinks in, the show has already moved on to the next vignette.
Ronquillo, Eric Michael Parker, Brian Alexander
Nonetheless, for the most part, the show's enacted changes are marvelously staged. Many of the show's signature production numbers such as "America" (wonderfully done here), "Cool," "Tonight," and "The Rumble" are all quite good. More particularly, the gang fight that closes the first act poses so much more of a feeling of danger, thanks to its relative distance to our seats. Most people know what occurs here, yet the shock of its tragic occurrences still manages to jolt us. It's quite powerful as close-knit theater. While, personally, I feel that their treatment of "One Hand, One Heart" and "Somewhere" aren't as searing as previous productions have classically portrayed them, this show's treatment of "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love" gets it absolutely, perfectly right.
Technology also plays a huge part in this update and is one of the show's welcome additions to this classic property. For a theater with a tiny footprint, I have always admired the Chance Theater's continued effective usage of state-of-the-art lighting and video projections—besting how they're done in even some of the biggest regional theaters in the area. It's certainly more subtle here, but both add such appropriate mood to every scene.
And what's even more remarkable is seeing a cast that looks age-appropriate for the roles they play. Keaton Williams and Gina Velez, the pair that play star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria respectively, provide admirable portrayals of the infamous couple. But the show's real MVP's are Gasper Spinosa—who plays Tony's best friend Riff—and Chelsea Baldree—who plays Maria's brother's girlfriend Anita. Each are quite riveting, particularly Baldree whose character's act of pure selflessness in the second act (despite just experiencing a tragic loss) is gut-wrenching to watch. Her powerful portrait here and in several key scenes throughout are definitely worth some notices during awards season.
Along with the show's outstanding ensemble cast, a few also worth mentioning: the superb Frank Minano (as Doc), Michael Grenie (as Liet. Schrank), Amanda Sylvia (as Anybodys), and Robert Wallace (as Bernardo).
Though it seems utterly futile to even try to re-work an almost flawless classic such as WEST SIDE STORY, the fact that The Chance Theater attempted such a task should be applauded, especially considering such impressive results. Here's hoping their audacious trend continues.
'West Side Story' at The Chance
by Jordan Young, Examiner
[ Link to Examiner ]
Ever wanted to see a Broadway musical, seated on stage? The current “up close and personal” production of “West Side Story” at The Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills—now extended through Aug. 19—is about as intimate an opportunity as you’ll ever get. Director Oanh Nguyen’s and choreographer Kelly Todd’s re-imagined staging of the Bernstein-Sondheim-Laurents warhorse is grittier and more realistic than the show you think you know. Music director/keyboardist Robyn Wallace’s fresh interpretation of the score for a six-piece band further jazzes things up.
Keaton Williams (Tony), Chelsea Baldree (Anita), Robert Wallace (Bernardo), Amanda Sylvia (Anybodys) and Elena Murray (Rosalia) contribute noteworthy performances. Baby-faced Gina Velez (Maria) is a standout, investing her character with more emotional reality and less theatricality than the rest of the energetic ensemble. Coincidentally, they’re all Cal State Fullerton students (Baldree is a recent grad), earning high marks for the university’s theater department.
Chance Theater's Staging of 'West
Side Story' Highlights Anaheim's Current Woes
This production mines the deep currents swirling beneath this old story through earnest, vigorous acting and superior production standards
by Joel Beers, OC Weekly
Spinosa and Robert Wallace
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the Anaheim summer of 2012, with cops shooting reputed gang members and protests flaring in the streets, will be slapped with the irony of a theater in that city mounting a production of a play steeped in gangs, cops and murders.
That irony is not minimized by the fact the theater in question, the Chance, is located in Anaheim Hills, which is far more Yorba Linda than downtown Anaheim, and the show is the classic 1957 musical West Side Story. Sure, the characters still speak in 1950s lingo such as "daddy-o" and "buddy boy," the worst insult one can hurl is "chicken," and a story about an inner-city gang feud that doesn't involve automatic weapons or drugs is more than a touch archaic.
But there's one undeniable connection between the original and this gritty, sexually infused production: In the 1950s, cops were quite capable of being racially profiling, overbearing pricks who often made bad situations worse. Connect the dots from then to now yourself.
Yes, the cops in West Side Story are merely supporting characters against the backdrop of the feuding gangs—the Puerto Rican Sharks and the white, lower-class Jets—and the burgeoning Romeo and Juliet-like romance that sets the tragic events in motion. But the roles they play are significant. The bumbling street officer Krupke is a plump, waddling enforcer content to crack any skulls that come his way. But the force symbolized by the plainclothes Lieutenant Shrank is far more serious, supplying the institutionalized racism and heavy-handed aggression that keeps the gang fuse lit.
Shrank is the one character with real power in this play. And its most dangerous. The racial invectives he spews at the Sharks ("spick") and the Jets ("tinhorn immigrant scum"), his desire to use the white Jets to help gain him a promotion, and his constant threats to beat the living crud out of anyone who doesn't see it his way all contribute to the tinder-box flaming in the streets. Yes, the gang members are delinquents at best and criminals at worst, but, in light of Shrank, it is hard to not ask where they learned their racism and propensity for violence.
Though Shrank (convincingly played by Michael Grenie) is the play's vilest character, West Side Story is about much more than him. And under Oanh Nguyen's skilled direction, this production amply displays that. It's hard to make a show that is so recognizable feel fresh and compelling, but Nguyen admirably succeeds. The romance between the former head of the Jets, Tony (a perfectly restrained Keaton Williams), and Maria (a fresh and ebullient Gina Velez), the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, can often seem perfunctory in many productions, but here it feels fraught with passion and impending doom.
And the excellent work of the actors portraying key supporting roles manages to elevate this from a play about a bunch of wise-cracking street hoodlums to something much more. The white kids come from broken households but still yearn for a more productive life; yet with no present and little future, they resort to a territorial pissing contest against the Puerto Ricans. The Sharks, though brown-skinned immigrants, share a similar conflict: They yearn for their island home but also realize the potential of life in America. But bullied by the cops and called lice and cockroaches by the Jets, they seem just as trapped in the spiral of street-level violence.
Ronquillo and Brian Alexander
This production is able to mine the deep currents swirling beneath Arthur Laurents' book and Stephen Sondheim's lyrics through earnest, vigorous acting and superior production standards. According to the program, this is "one of the world's first shows where LED lighting has replaced all conventional lighting fixtures." Lighting designer KC Wilkerson has a lot of cool toys to play with, and the design is suffused with textures and colors that visually illustrate the dark, foreboding sense of this play.
Kelly Todd's sinewy choreography stylistically captures the bursting hormones at work in this play about young adults, which manifest in both orgiastic, chest-heaving routines and if-we-can't-fuck-we'll-fight numbers. And Nguyen's choice to use the entire space in this quasi-theater-in-the-round staging results in a production in which actors are in the audience's face as well as hovering above. This is no dinosaur wheeled out by the Chance to drag asses into seats; it's an innovative, gripping staging that once again shows how much the Chance has grown in 13 years.
And it ends on a quite telling note. [SPOILER ALERT] After the play's last murder, when the gang members, their girls and even the cops realize their culpability in the bloodletting, each character drops to the ground, symbolizing how a part of them has died in the course of this story. And that may be the most effective point of this powerful staging. It's easy to point fingers when a neighborhood is enmeshed in poverty and violence: aggressive cops, violent thugs, bad parents, a fucked-up system. But when you get down to it, a community is an organism. When a part of that organism is cut off or withers away, it affects the entire body. At some point, it takes every part to come together in order to heal.
What a great venue to see theater!
posted by Belen on 08/10/12
Wow... what a wonderful experience to be a part of! the cast was awesome and being that close to the stage was like being a part of the cast itself. What a great venue to see theater!
Every aspect of this production
was just outstanding
posted by Peter Henry Tanner on 08/10/12
Every aspect of this production was just outstanding. We enjoyed this presentation of West Side Story more than any other that we have experienced in the past.
This is one of the best West
Side Story's ever!
posted by Kay Osborne on 08/10/12
I've seen West Side Story productions before, but this one is the best ever! I had never been to Chance Theatre, but will return. Beautiful voices & choreography is superb. Close up staging was very effective.
One of the most exciting & rewarding
I have spent in a theater
posted by Jim Conley on 08/10/12
One of the most exciting & rewarding evenings I have spent in a theater. Incredible use of comparatively small space which was filled with the most original choreography I've seen in a long time. Outstanding voices! If it was not so far away I would have gone a 2nd time.
Absolutely love the performance
posted by Kathleen Ferguson on 08/09/12
Absolutely love the performance. This was the first time I have been in you Theater and was surprised at its size. I now have an appreciation for smaller theaters, I felt the story a little more than being in a large theater so far away. Your cast of actors/dancers/ singers were outstanding. Maria was my favorite, her voice is beautiful and her acting it wonderful. I know she will go far. Can't wait to see her next performance. Talked about so much at work today that I now have co-workers wanting to attend. Good Job!
The chemistry between Maria and
Tony was amazing
posted by Margaret on 08/09/12
We loved it! the chemistry between Maria and Tony was amazing,,,they made me smile at their love songs and cry at the sad songs. Very impressive professionalism for such a young cast - we will return for Little Women in the winter. thanks so much!
posted by Floyd Farano on 08/09/12
Seen a lot of good small theater off broadway shows. This one was up with the very best. You long months of planning with a difficult situation was rewarded with a superior result. Congrats.
I felt I was seeing this show for
the first time!
posted by Charlie Malings on 08/09/12
Having seen WSS countless times on Broadway and other Venues. This production was fresh and exciting. Seeing this production in an intimate space and small acting area was an experience that I and my 2 kids are still buzzing about. The acting was good, the voices were beautiful and the choreography was so original I felt I was seeing this show for the first time! The tech was spot on, the minimal sets, video projection and the lighting added to the excitement and mood changes. costumes were very hip and married yesterday and todays fashions. i want to see this production again before it closes. I hope it goes past regional. I truly believe this show is deserving of a wider audience. Great Job. i look forward to seeing many other shows at The Chance.
It was just excellent
posted by Sally & Dick on 08/09/12
We saw the performance last Sunday afternoon and loved it! We read the impressive review in the LA Times and decided to see for ourselves. It was just excellent - great voices, good actors, terrific choreography & music and a perfect, small & intimate stage set.
The most athletic and effective
choreography I've seen in this piece in many years
posted by David King on 08/09/12
Big art in a small space. This is a WSS that envelops the audience from the start and makes it a part of the action. Breaking the 4th wall, the actors encourage you to become, in a sense, gang members, and as such, you are an active (mentally anyway) participant. It's the most athletic and effective choreography I've seen in this piece in many years. The actors/singers are all well cast. We'll never forget this excellent and originally conceived production. Note to Management: Keep that air conditioning on full blast throughout the performance. It's hot in there.
posted by Patti Faiman on 08/04/12
Absolutely fabulous!! The music & dancing were superb. It was so intense to be so close to the actors; you felt part of the action. Really enjoyed the discussion session with the actors afterwards also.
Singing, acting, and dancing were
posted by Kara Bluntach on 08/04/12
West Side Story was fabulous! Singing, acting, and dancing were exceptional. This was my first visit to Chance. I'll certainly come again.
The final act was emotional, and
quite thought provoking
posted by Ron Rice on 08/02/12
My wife Merle and I really enjoyed the play. The dancing and actions of the actors was infectious. The final act was emotional, and quite thought provoking. Good job.
That was the most intimate theater
I have ever gone to
posted by Theresa De La Cruz on 08/01/12
That was the most itimate theater I have ever gone to and I have been to many. Big prductions and small. But you all made it really work! Great production that captured your imagination,the sets and talent really made it all come to life!
Added a new dimension to the content
posted by Brian Sharoff on 08/01/12
The production was wonderful. Seeing the actors that close added a new dimension to the content and says a lot about the excellent casting that you did. Unfortunately, we live in New York and can't visit Chance on a regular basis. However, we will certainly make every effort to visit again the next time we come to California. Congrats.
posted by Ben Boelman on 08/01/12
The show was excellent. The quality of singing voices were wonderful, with Maria and Tony having superb voices. Managing a show of this magnitude in the space you had was truly remarkable. I might have chosen different instrumentation give a choice, but again the musicians did an overall good job. Usually Broadway Shows of this type become "dated", however I believe "West Side Story" will remain a classic.
A wonderful presentation
posted by Keith Rickey on 08/01/12
The production of West Side Story was excellent! All the actors did a great job and considering the space constraints very true to the original. Thanks for a wonderful presentation.
posted by Carol Latham on 08/01/12
OUTSTANDING!!! A timeless, powerful and now timely topic especially in light of the current unrest in the city. Spot on performances by the entire cast. So glad the run has been extended. Can't wait to see it again. I predict Ovation nominations and acclaim.
Need I say more than "we loved
posted by Elizabeth Jones on 07/27/12
What a surprise to walk into the theater and find that it had been transformed into a New York Alley. There was something new and wonderful to explore in every corner of the theater. And then West Side Story began and we were treated to all the favorite characters and music of this classic. But instead of it being 1957, it was 2012, edgy and updated. Need I say more than "we loved it"?
I am amazed every time I attend
a production at The Chance
posted by Nancy Starr on 07/26/12
I thought the show was absolutely fabulous! I was so impressed with the quality of the performers--their voices were incredible & the choreography was unbelievable. I am amazed every time I attend a production at The Chance. So glad we have such an outstanding off-broadway production house so close to home. Thanks, again!!!
Enjoyed every minute
posted by Kay Bruce on 07/26/12
We attended a Saturday night Preview of West Side Story and enjoyed every minute. Having 27 cast members in that space was unbelievable. But the best part was after the production meeting with the cast, director, producers, musicians, and other staff. We will come back many times on Preview nights just for this experience. Thank you all.
Beautiful and intricate choreography
posted by Phyllis Hellwig on 07/25/12
Beautiful and intricate choreography highlights this poignant production of a classic musical. Enjoyed every minute of it!
Probably the best CHANCE has done
posted by Michele Volz on 07/25/12
An unbelievably impressive performance-probably the best CHANCE has done. And it's hard to believe they were able to generate that much energy and such a high level performance in an amazingly intimate space. KUDOS to all the creative minds/hearts involved!!!
An exhilarating theater experience
posted by Fran Riggs on 07/25/12
This was an exhilarating theater experience, with an incredibly talented young cast offering believable portrayals of the anger and futility of gangs -- then and now. The older characters express the grief and frustration of the community that must watch the waste of these lives. The climax was more moving than I would have thought possible.
The choreography was fabulous and new. Given the challenges of the available space, it was truly in-your-face, non-stop fun and exciting.
The musical accompaniment was perfect: just big enough to relish the glorious score, but never drowning out the voices or lyrics.
This impacting West Side Story is like no other
posted by Ruth Burgess on 07/25/12
West Side Story is a phenomenal show that captures the audience into living the story with the actors. The creative choreography and lighting contributes, and the sincerity of the actors takes you. The moral of the story is clearly shown, and the show's art is moving. I want to thank Mr. Nguyen for giving his time to teach and direct CAA, I surely have learned alot from his expertise:) This impacting West Side Story is like no other, it is a must see!!!
Kudos to the two leads
posted by Robert on 07/25/12
We thoroughly enjoyed the musical. This was a different take on the original play and considering the space requirements of the Chance Theater, it worked quite well.
Kudos to the two leads - their voices were great and the harmony was entertaining.
Keep up the good work!
I can't wait to see it again (if I can get tickets)!!!
posted by Marnie Ceporius on 07/25/12
I grew up with West Side Story, both original play and movie. I always thought I was a purist until I saw the Chance's production last weekend. The staging and choreography is brilliant. I can't wait to see it again(if I can get tickets)!!!
I felt like I was IN the play
posted by Anonymous on 07/25/12
This was a fabulous production!!!! I've seen "west side story" a number of times---live and on film. Never have I felt so involved and touched. I felt like I was IN the play with the proximity of front row setting. My neighbor, Gina Velez was stupendous as well as the rest of the cast. I'll be back for future productions. You have a great thing going at the Chance.
Kudos to the cast and crew!
posted by Leisa Williams on 07/25/12
We came with a large group of people to see West Side Story on July 21st . It went way beyond "it did not disappoint" - "it was amazing"! It was all anyone could talk about at dinner afterwards. Kudos to the cast and crew!
Elegant staging and up-close-and-personal feel!
posted by Dr. Carl Fabrizio, Jr. on 07/25/12
A truly bold theater experience with all the right ingredients: talented cast, crew and musicians; elegant staging and up-close-and-personal feel! Fantastic direction and choreography to boot! High-end theater for a reasonable price right here in the OC. God is good. We'll be back, for sure.
If you can manage to get a seat, do it now
posted by The Tom on 07/24/12
choreography, set design, lighting, sound, performers .. it has it all, not to mention high energy, emotion, and intimacy .... if you can mange to get a seat, do it now .....
The singing, the choreography, the staging were all outstanding
posted by Louise Goodriend on 07/24/12
Excellent production. We enjoyed it thoroughly. The singing, the choreography,
the staging were all outstanding. My friends could have done without the detective
smoking right in front of them.
The singing, the choreography, the staging were all outstanding
posted by Will & Laura Young on 07/17/12
Don't miss this show! West Side Story has always been a favorite musical but the Chance production is surprising, rousing and touching. You'll find yourself smiling at some points and holding your breath at others. The actors, choreography, music and staging are superb. Congratulations to Oanh and the cast and crew for providing a wonderful experience to be seen over and over again.