The daunting score to West Side Story is one of the most rigorous in American musical theater. “Most companies, if they do West Side Story, they modify it, they adapt it, they strip it down,” says Robert Connor, theater director at the Las Vegas Academy of the Performing Arts.
Connor is overseeing a production of the classic about star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. When asked if he planned to simplify the show so his talented high school cast could handle it, he responded quickly: “We would never do that. When we do a show here at the school, we do it as written. We don’t water it down. We challenge the students to rise to it.”
Budgeted at $60,000, LVA’s production features 75 performers and a 40-piece orchestra. At its center is Leonard Bernstein’s swaggering score—a kaleidoscope of classical, jazz and show tunes, built atop a latticework of heavily syncopated Latin rhythms. It demands from the young musicians the ability to shift stylistic gears on a dime, to mesh with musicians who come from other musical traditions and to endure (the show runs two and a half hours).
They’ve held up well. French-horn player Sabrina Bernstein says playing the music has been a great growing experience. She hails from the classical world, which is “really precise and strict in how you view the music. In West Side Story the music has room. The eighth notes have to swing.” The score is no less demanding for the cast, a talented mix of theater and chorus majors. But there’s not a weak voice in the bunch. “The beats have such a Latin, Puerto Rican flair, but the style they want us to sing in is almost operatic,” says Primrose Martin, one of two actors playing Anita, Maria’s best friend.
“It’s a big task to take on,” adds Cody Canyon, who plays Tony. “People know the show so well, people come in with such high expectations we have to come up to it.” Alexis Fitting, one of two actors who play Maria, describes the score as “beautiful, but much more vocally demanding.” Maria’s songs are basically opera, and fortunately the diminutive Fitting has a voice strong enough to reach the rafters. The music, she notes, was “pushing the envelope then. That’s why people still love it.”
The show is pushing the cast, too, but as you catch glimpses of the ups and downs of rehearsals, it’s clear that this version of West Side Story is stocked with some of Las Vegas’ most promising singers and musicians. (Bernstein hopes to head off to USC next year and embark on a career as a singer-songwriter; Martin, a singer-dancer-actor, has already been accepted to the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts and is gearing up for a spring audition at Juilliard.)
During one rehearsal, the orchestra kicked into the muscular mambo section of the “Dance at the Gym,” a set piece where rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks show off on the dance floor. The number still packs an exuberant punch. You can hear the confidence and ambition of mid-century America—and see it echoed by this crop of talented performers.
“These kids,” Connor says, “live and die musical theater.”