Coralville – Old Capitol Opera is a new company, with only a few productions under their belt. Last summer, they produced Chicago, the Musical and this summer, they’re tackling the classic love story West Side Story with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and libretto/lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. With only a two week rehearsal period, it was very ambitious to attempt to mount this challenging musical. While there were some wonderful moments, it was unfortunately mostly an uneven production.
West Side Story tells the love story of Tony (James Thompson) and Maria (Caroline Marcotte), the Romeo and Juliet of the New York gang scene in the 1950s. Caught between the warring gangs – the Jets and the Sharks – Tony and Maria want only to love another, and try to create peace. Tragically, peace is not to be and their love is doomed. With groundbreaking music and powerfully aggressive choreography, West Side Story changed the course of Broadway musicals for all time.
Thompson and Marcotte are fantastic singers, easily maneuvering through Bernstein’s challenging score. Their voices are powerful when necessary and soft and sweet when required. However, they seemed to treat the show as more of a concert than a musical, never really connecting with each other, and making it hard for us to invest in their love. When Thompson sings “Maria,” I believed he loved singing the song, but I didn’t believe he loved Maria. Also, some of the staging doesn’t help the actors connect to each other. In the scene where Anita (Megan O’Brien) and Maria argue over Tony while singing “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” for much of the song, they sing out to the audience instead of to each other. Dramatically, this cuts the power of the scene, and when Anita relents, it doesn’t ring as true as it might have otherwise.
A number of the supporting actors do a good job, in particular O’Brien as Anita and Chris Cruz as Bernardo. Cruz smolders with rage on stage, and you believe he is seething from the injustice of his life. O’Brien has a number of really good moments, particularly the song “America,” which is perfectly suited to the attitude of the character she creates. Kudos to Katerine Bergman who is an excellent foil in this comedic song.
Jessie Shaw as Anybody’s, the girl who wants to join the Jets and is constantly disappointed, shines whenever she is on stage. She has a stage presence that draws your eye, and shows a beautiful voice in her solo moment. If there’s one critique I’d offer this young and promising performer, it’s to not be afraid to be vulnerable on stage.
Three other supporting actors also turned in good performances. Jeff Rickerl has a clear voice and performed well as RIff, the leader of the Jets. Hunter Quinn, as his right hand man, Action, often brought a contagious energy to the show with his passionate performance. His energy seemed to bring out the best in his fellow actors. Finally, Doug Beardsley as Doc, the older and wiser character of the show, handled his dramatic moments well.
Eric Burchett’s set design worked well, using movable sets to create Doc’s Drugstore and Maria’s bedroom. A chain link fence upstage gave the stage an urban feel. A projected city scape toward the end of the show was welcome though I wondered why it wasn’t used for the entire show.
West Side Story is known for its opportunities for dramatic choreography. Choreographers Tallis Strub and Doug and Jill Beardsley created some visually exciting moments, but unfortunately the dancers were often out of sync with each other, particularly in the dynamic opening number. Clearly more rehearsal time was needed to master the complicated steps.
The most effective visual of the show was the Dream Sequence, featuring the song “Somewhere.” The choreography was excellent and for the most part the ensemble executed it well. Lead by the two wonderful soloists Shaw and Bergman, the entire cast joins together raising their voices to the heavens and suddenly the emotional yearning of every character becomes crystal clear. It’s a powerful moment and simply beautiful to behold.
Old Capitol Opera’s production of West Side Story has some good moments and is filled with excellent singers, but it doesn’t feel like a finished product. Two weeks of rehearsal is probably not enough time to do justice to this groundbreaking show.
The show runs through August 30 at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $35 for adults, $27 for seniors, $22 for students, and $15 for children.