West Side Story: A Timeless Classic

By: Ruben Borjas, Jr., Columnist, Montgomery County News
| Published 02/21/2024


CONROE, TX -- I’ve only flown over Manhattan, but the borough of NYC has landed in Conroe’s Crighton Theatre this month with Stage Right’s production of ‘West Side Story’ (WSS), the semi-modern day musical (In stage production since 1957, and 1961 in film). It’s set on the west side of the former Dutch trading post that was named New Amsterdam in 1626. And as you go along with the story, you will recognize the similarities between WSS and Bill Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy, ‘Romeo and Juliet’. They are of course similar with each having star-crossed lovers that fall madly for each other, with the usual complications that are set upon by family, friends, and rival gangs. For those who haven’t familiarized with the story in a good while, you have a great opportunity here.

WSS is the love story of Tony (Nick Gant) and Maria (Kaylee Duran). In this musical, Maria, newly arrived to America, is the younger sister of Bernardo (Jacob Bautista), who is the leader of the ‘Sharks’, a gang with origins from Puerto Rico. At a dance Maria and Tony fall for each other, exploding the tensions on stage when Maria’s brother confronts them. Tony is the retired founder of the ‘Jets’, the American gang; now led by Riff (Robben Montez), his best friend. Of course these stories are all about territory, respect, love and hate, and it's no different with The Jets’ defending their turf, while the rival Sharks are trying to carve out a little chunk of concrete for themselves. A rumble is planned, and things take a devastating turn.

The old themes of Shakespeare change over time. With WSS, families becoming gangs, religion changing to race, Tybalt becomes Bernardo, Mercutio changes to Riff, the Prince is now the Police Lieutenant showing favoritism, Paris becomes Chino, Verona reinvents itself to Manhattan, and 1595 transfers to 1957. All of it comes together at the end with a surprising twist.

Race is one of the underlying themes that may have been brushed aside back in the day, but they are more prevalent today in the racial prejudice against the Sharks. Even I had racial slurs thrust at me when I was young because of my surname, and I was just as white as the next guy. But I didn’t take them seriously. The biggest thing concerning Bernardo was family honor on the accounting of his sister, since his reputation is at stake. He has to act, not only for himself, but for his gang. No weakness is allowed. That leads to a rumble. There is also the feeling that war is good, just for the excitement, but when blood is spilled, it’s not so funny anymore. Anger, rage, seriousness.

WSS is a minefield of emotions, not only with racial tensions, but with violence, love and hate. From the opening scene of the basketball court the intensity waxes and wanes, yielding good pacing and allowing for the story to continue. For the actors, it’s a production with a lot of action. Moves that must be made. Marks that must be hit. You have to hand it to the cast for their hard work. Then there is the dialogue, singing, dancing, stage-fighting, and it all needs to be plausible. And it was.

Director Cricket Pepper has done an amazing job with a young cast. She is essentially a teacher, having her students get out their notebooks at the end of each rehearsal, giving bits of constructive criticism here or there. Pepper is all about getting the best out of her actors. She demands it, and they respond. WSS is one of those productions that has so many aspects going on at one time, and the audience has to be able to dissect what they are seeing from their line of sight. And to really take it all in you need to be on the balcony level.

The acting, singing, action scenes, and dancing are all very good in WSS. Robben Montez’ Riff, he is a very good singer, and he can dance too. It’s hard to believe Robben is self taught in both disciplines. He distinguishes himself in ‘Jet Song’, ‘Cool’, the ‘Tonight Quintet’. We should all be looking for bigger things coming from him. Nick Gant’s Tony, his performance in song is worthy of taking note. His strong voice filled the room, and you almost wish you could bottle it. His ‘Something’s Coming’, and ‘Maria’, should be heralded as sharp performances. Kaylee Duran’s Maria, is delicate, soft. Her voice is soothing and welcoming, and brought a great delight to the audience. She showed courage in her performance with the ‘Tonight Quintet’, ‘I Feel Pretty,’ and ‘I Have A Love.’ Both Gant’s and Duran’s duets, the ‘Tonight Balcony Scene’, and ‘One Hand, One Heart’, showed what true teamwork and opposing strengths can bring to making beautiful music together.

Other performances that I highlighted were Jacob Bautista’s Bernardo in the ‘Tonight Quintet’; Kolby Hughes’s Diesel and Robert Gyomber’s Action in ‘Jet Song’ and ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’; Elyze Ramis’s Anita and Nohelia Cantù’s Rosalia in ‘America’; and Elyze Ramis again in, ‘A Boy Like That.’ Ramis’s character was part of a sexual assault scene at Doc’s, played by Rob Baker, and she was brave to take part in a such a terrible issue, but it set the spark for the energy of the rest of the act. Timothy Eggert’s Lt. Schrank, and Josua Darner’s Office Krupke, although their parts were small, played a big part in demonstrating that gangs don’t rat on each other. Even when Schrank showed prejudice against the Puerto Ricans.

Jonathan Duttweiler’ Glad Hand, stunned the audience with his commanding voice in ‘Somewhere,’ the funeral scene. While dancer Ellie Williams’ Velma, was flawless in her performance, as she drew many eyes of the audience to the right side of the stage to witness perfection at work. Her years with the Houston Ballet were not spent in vain, and she brought great value to the production. In fact, the dance numbers with the entire cast were pleasant to watch and were well choreographed. And they performed beautifully as a chorus as well.

To keep everything rolling along, I appreciated the cast themselves taking part in setting the scene under the blue light following each flawless transition. The drop downs of the fence, door and wall, and basketball goal, brought some realism to the scene, and were well timed. The set designer Ken Copeland does deserve a round of applause. Lighting played a major part as well, and Keegan Pepper should take a bow. The sound was appropriate and not overpowering. A voice or two may have been a tad soft, and the gunshot could have been a bit louder, but I’m not faulting them. They got the point across.

For such a large cast, and young at that, the level of professionalism displayed was impressive. The sound, lighting, music, singing, dancing, set, and costumes used in West Side Story all came together perfectly to make this musical a success. The characters that had speaking parts, spoke loud and clear. Even the body language and gestures spoke messages that were easy to interpret. I’m deeply impressed with the amount of talent our region has in order to pull off a performance of this caliber. The dancing, movements, vocals. Everything just clicked to make this production of West Side Story a successful hit.

West Side Story runs through February 25th. For season tickets and audition information visit:

Ruben can be reached at:

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