Jacob Caltrider as Tony and Jessica Soza as Maria in "West Side Story" at  San Diego Musical Theatre.
Jacob Caltrider as Tony and Jessica Soza as Maria in “West Side Story” at San Diego Musical Theatre. Photo by Ken Jacques

By Pat Launer

There was a time when Broadway musicals provided the pop hits of the day. “West Side Story” was certainly one of those shows. It was a groundbreaker, with its brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein, book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by a twenty-something Stephen Sondheim, spawning songs like “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Somewhere,” which have been recorded by hundreds of artists.

Now, in a new, knockout production by San Diego Musical Theatre, it still looks and feels fresh and relevant, with its “Romeo and Juliet”-based love story set amid the tough street gangs of New York. These days, love is still boldly crossing boundaries, and gangs are still, alas, killing each other in the streets.

One of the amazing things about the show has always been the stunning, muscular dancing. Choreographer Randy Slovacek pays homage to the iconic Jerome Robbins originals, while adding about 50% of his own moves. It’s a wonderful mix, performed by a whopping, mega-talented cast of 31, backed by an exciting 28-piece orchestra, under the finely nuanced baton of Don LeMaster.

James Vasquez directs with a sure hand, adding humorous stage business to beef up the comical moments. His central cast is superb: golden-voiced Jessica Soza, making her U.S. debut as Maria (she played the role last year on an international tour), blossoms from a tentative, shy new Puerto Rican immigrant girl into an assertive, love-besotted woman. Jacob Caltrider, looking perhaps a bit too clean-cut/ All-American for a gang member, sings his heart out as Tony; his acting, and his connection and chemistry with Soza, are thoroughly credible (“One Hand, One Heart” is a tearjerker). Their love, of course, is doomed by prejudice and a destructive, enduring Us-Them mentality.

Natalie Nucci is a phenomenal Anita, hard-edged, sassy, vocally strong (especially in “America”) and a terrific dancer. Jeffrey Scott Parsons, always such a welcome L.A. visitor to San Diego, gets his macho on as Riff, the indomitable Jets leader, who revs his guys up (“Jet Song”) and calms them down (“Cool”) with aplomb, augmenting his words with impressive dance moves.  As his counterpart, Bernardo, head of the Puerto Rican Sharks, Kikau Alvarado has an imperious presence. Other notable performances include Andrew Koslow as the pugnacious Action; Siri Hafso as Riff’s sexy main-squeeze; and Manny Fernandes as the street-wise, world-weary Lt. Schrank.

The multi-level set (Sean Fanning), all urban metal, chainlink fence and fire escapes, is magnificently lit (Amanda Zieves). The colorful costumes (Janet Pitcher) underscore the spirited interactions, especially in the “Dance at the Gym.” Only the sound (Kevin Anthenill) wavered, with an uneven mix and a lack of clarity in the cavernous Spreckels Theatre that is the new home to SDMT. This majestic, historic space is the perfect setting for a masterwork that, because of its huge scope and triple-threat talent requirements, doesn’t come along all that often.

Don’t miss this opportunity to see a Great American Classic — and bring your favorite teen; there are life lessons here for all ages.

  • West Side Story” runs through March 1 at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown
  • Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets ($25-$65) are available at 858-560-5740 or online at sdmt.org
  • Running time:  2 hrs. 30 min.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.