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Director Victor Malana Maog and Choreographer Alex Sanchez amazed us all with what they did on this stage

It is wonderful to be back in the theater again. Yes, for many people it has been two years since they have watched a live performance. Judging from the almost full house, opening night at Marriott Theatre for “West Side Story”, one could see that the atmosphere was one of enjoyment, excitement and love. One must remember that this musical was revolutionary in its time and in many ways changed the way we view “musical theater”! With its book by Arthur Laurents that is loosely based on a work by William Shakespeare called “Romeo & Juliet”. In his version it is not the Montagues and Capulets, but rather the White people versus the Puerto Ricans, and our star-crossed lovers do not end up exactly the way they do in the work of the Bard.

With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this musical is filled with memorable songs like “Maria”, “Tonight”, “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere” and the comic “Dear Officer Krupke” and many more. It has been around for many years, and I truly think every stage that holds musicals in Chicago has had a production, at least once. Marriott, the only true “in-the-round-venue" has a fairly small stage area, and I was concerned as to how they would or even could stage some of the big dance numbers on it. I must say that Director Victor Malana Maog and Choreographer Alex Sanchez amazed us all with what they did on this stage. The dance numbers were amazing. A mix of typical Broadway steps, jazz, modern dance and even Ballet. The dance sequence in “Somewhere” was powerful and a great story telling scene.

The ladies in “America” rocked! The “Rumble” was filled with realism that one sees very clearly when in an intimate theater like Marriott. Patti Garwood and her [9] piece orchestra truly made the music fill the theater with just the right touch. The performers, many of whom were not born when the original show was created, or even the film (first version) understood the characters and the story to perfection. From our vantage point, we could not only hear every word said and sung but could see their faces allowing us to see the emotions of each character as written and performed. A great ensemble makes for a great production.

In the main roles, Maria is played Lauren Maria Medina who has a lovely voice, is a solid dancer and won me over as she made this young newcomer to New York wanting love and harmony. Jake David Smith as Tony is for the most part the best vocalist I have seen play this part, but his physical look and movement was not the “Tony” I was expecting. Gary Cooper (Bernardo) is a smooth dancer and his girlfriend; Anita is played to perfection by Vanessa Aurora Sierra. Her voice is powerful, and she can truly move. Riff is played by Drew Redington and I was quite impressed by Marisa Fee as “Anybodys’, a character of importance (maybe more now so, than when the play was first performed) that goes unnoticed in many productions.

The three adult roles are played by three Chicago theater veterans, Lance Baker, Matt DeCaro and Bret Tuomi- they are terrific. Also of note, during the “Somewhere” sequence, Sophia Marie Guerrero takes on a solo part and nails it! The Jets and Sharks are very important to this play and story so hats off to all of these youngsters: Alejandro Fonseca, Jorge Guerra, Sophie Marie Guerrero, Cameron Holzman, Taylor Lane, Risa Nicole, Kevin Nietzel, Omar Nieves, Emmanual Ramirez, Alexa Racioppi, Sam Rohloff, Laura Savage, Maria Cristina Posada Slye (who was a major part of “America” number), Kyra Sorce, Alex Joseph Stewart, Calvin Ticknor-Swanson, Marta Timmerman, Marco Antonio Tzunux (Chino), Jonathan Warner and Miranda Borkan. They are all terrific and make this 2 hours and 25 minutes of story telling a theatrical experience to remember. BRAVO!

Marriott Theatre audiences know that the sets are quite simple, as it is in-the-round so the sight lines must be clear. I will say that the way they did the fire escape in this version is far better than previously done so hats off to Jeffrey D. Kmiec (and I loved the windows of the area buildings). Jesse Klug’s lighting, Michael Daly’s sound and Amanda Vander Byl’s costumes were as usual right on. Marriott Theatre is a leader of theaters, and they are great at making “old shows, new” on their stage. As we left for the theater Jane mentioned just how many times she has seen “West Side Story” (lots) and of course, during the pandemic, the new film version. As I always tell her, every live production is unique based on the cast, the director and the creativity. As the music began and the youngsters entered the stage, I saw her face light up and I knew she was hooked. So, no matter how many times you have seen it, you might just want to see what Victor Malana Maog and Alex Sanchez have done to take you back to 1957, New York for “West Side Story”. Bring tissues-this has always been a three-tissue ending for me!