Theater Review

Houston's must-see stage show is a red hot, sultry summer classic

Houston's must-see stage show is a red hot, sultry summer classic

West Side Story AD Players Houston
The young West Side Story cast energizes the classic.  Photo by Joey Watkins Photography
West Side Story AD Players Houston
The leads hark to Romeo and Juliet Photo by Joey Watkins Photography
West Side Story AD Players Houston
The men are macho — and musical.  Photo by Joey Watkins Photography
West Side Story AD Players Houston
The dancing is lively.  Photo by Joey Watkins Photography
West Side Story AD Players Houston
The costumes are vibrant and edgy.  Photo by Joey Watkins Photography
West Side Story AD Players Houston
West Side Story AD Players Houston
West Side Story AD Players Houston
West Side Story AD Players Houston
West Side Story AD Players Houston

When A.D. Players artistic director Kevin Dean and executive director Jake Speck were putting together the 2018-2019 season, there was one problem: There wasn't a single show on the calendar that scared them.

That might sound like a good thing, but over the last two years, A.D. Players has worked to stretch itself artistically and produce works that would resonate with a diverse audience. So it was important to the organization that they absolutely do a show that left them terrified about how they might achieve it.

That's about when they settled on mounting West Side Story. The classic musical, set in New York City in the 1950s and a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, is one of the most iconic shows in the musical theater canon. 

The must-see show of the summer
So now, A.D. Players has a new problem: They're going to need to find another show that scares them, because West Side Story is a must-see show of the summer, gloriously produced and realized, with a young, talented cast that brings a crazy energy to the stage.

With its glorious music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, featuring songs such as "Tonight," "Maria," and "America," on a foundation of innovative choreography by the legendary Jerome Robbins, West Side Story was practically an instant classic. And A.D. Players treats it with the resonance it deserves as such, while refusing to make it a museum piece. 

Emily Tello Speck directs — and choreographs — her young (and young-ish) cast with a capable hand, deftly getting at the heart of this show about rival New York City street gangs and the fallout of what happens when one of the Jets, Tony, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of their rivals, the Sharks. Folded into the mix are attitudes about what it means to be American, what it's like to be an immigrant in a strange land, and why, in the end, none of our differences much matter at all. 

As Tony, Daniel Z. Miller is a wonder. He possesses a lovely tenor that gleams with emotion and wonder. His rendering of "Something's Coming," Tony's song about feeling there's a change about to happen in his life, although he can't quite pinpoint it, is powerful with feeling.

Nicole Maridan's Maria is a force of nature, capable of youth and naïveté one minute, and rich maturity the next. Her voice is luminous, sometimes flirtatious, sometimes soulful. In duets, it often feels as if these two have tossed the notes high into the rafter and let them hang there, soaring above the orchestra like clouds floating in a jet-filled sky. 

Arik Vega, as Bernardo, Maria's older brother, and April Josephine, as his fiance Anita, are a sultry foil to the tender love story of Tony and Maria. No puppy love for them, they sizzle across the stage and with each other. 

NYC in H-Town
West Side Story has been a show that demands a lot from its performers, requiring a set of leads that are triple threats who can act, sing and dance. Every one of these leads is, and they're joined by a featured cast that fairly tears up the stage with dazzling dancing and singing. Awash in colorful costumes, the dance at the gym sequence is a stunning display of a cast bringing its A-game to material that's challenged performers for decades. They make all of it look so easy. In fact, it's easy to wonder what on earth A.D. Players ever had to fear.

Danielle Hodgins' multi-level set evokes the chain-link fences of a gritty New York street. Pieces slide in and out, or up and down. Actors scale ladders and descend steps. To create the bridal shop where Anita and Maria work, three dressmaker's dummies are rolled in. A jukebox slides in from stage right, and tables are added to create Doc's drugstore, scene of the war council that will decide the rules to the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks. The orchestra plays from behind the slatted set, a conceit that not only allows the music to come spilling out across the stage onto the audience but also means the stage the actors use is enlarged because there's no orchestra pit, meaning the action feels much more immediate and intimate.

Tragedy and triumph
This show is a tragedy on several levels, but the passion and energy of the cast bring out its exquisite message of hope and of faith and forgiveness, themes well within the wheelhouse of A.D. Players' mission to produce compelling theater from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience. In less capable hands, West Side Story can easily be a show that people will love because they love West Side Story, regardless of how well it's done or not. With this production, A.D. Players has a show that's gorgeously done and remarkably alive.

And audiences who say they've seen this show (and seen this show and seen this show; it's likely one of the most-produced pieces of theater in the repertoire) and therefore don't need to go back would be seriously advised to check themselves. Because this West Side Story is one for the ages. It's absolutely spectacular, and it should be seen. Put another way: anyone who missed this production is seriously missing out.

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West Side Story at A.D. Players at the George Theatre (5420 Westheimer Rd.) runs Wednesdays through Sundays through July 28. For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit the official site.