Something essential is missing from Academy's 'West Side Story'

There are two separate levels to the Las Vegas Academy's production of "West Side Story": one good, one not so good. Whether you enjoy the show depends, I suspect, on which level you choose to concentrate on.

As most of us on this planet know, the 1957 Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim/Arthur Laurents musical is "Romeo and Juliet" set in the slums of Manhattan. The white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks are determined to rumble. Tony (Cody Canyon) has fallen in love with Maria (Alexis Fitting, in a double-cast role), and has been convinced to try to stop the violence. If you know "Romeo and Juliet," you know things don't go quite as planned.

Director Robert Connor's take is visually colorful and emotional moving. Canyon is such a likable Tony that you appreciate his puppy-dog look whenever he's around Maria. Drew Lynch makes for a humorous and threatening Jets leader Riff (although the show would lose nothing by his dropping his exaggerated accent).

The dancing ensemble -- shown to its best by choreographer Thomas DiSabato -- is matched only by the take-your-breath away choral numbers directed by Megan Franke. And to frame it all, set designer Thom Bumblauskas creates mounds of fence over the local public parks that suggest the area's residents live in a kind of sociological prison. Add to that a 65-member cast and a 66-member orchestra, and you're bound to find numerous moments of considerable pleasure.

Trouble is, there's something essential missing. You never get the feeling that these kids are moving because they need to. You don't get the desperate energy that makes the violence in the story inevitable. Canyon, for example, is smooth, low-key, personable. But a gang member? Naw. More like the nice honor student next door.

Fitting's Maria seems to barely notice Tony and the terrible situation her love for him puts her in. She seems more concerned with hitting the right notes. (Her operatic style is a poor match for Canyon's easygoing crooning.)

All that exciting, jazzy Bernstein music seems nothing more than an excuse for the kids to kill some empty time on a weekend night. There needs to be heat in the need for that music, and the people involved in this show seem too respectable to have been able to latch onto it.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.