Review: The joyously unique “A West Side Story Love Story.”

Theater as life in “A West Side Story Love Story Starring Leesa Halstead and Paul Castaneda.” (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – In May 2011, the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre produced a play at the 20th Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, a comedy called “Pandemonium,” that satirized Milton’s “Paradise Lost. It was created by Paul Castaneda, who also directed, and Leesa Halstead, who played Satan, and performed in the Goldman Theatre at the John & Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center in downtown Orlando.
GOAT has produced other stage shows at Goldman, like the Broadway musical “Aida” with Desiree Perez in the title role and Adam McCabe joining her in the cast.
On Saturday, these four performers and theater veterans returned to the Goldman Theatre, where a sold-out audience awaited them. This time, there were no “Aida”-style Elton John songs, but rather hits from the Broadway classic “West Side Story.” The only difference is, this was not a revival of the Leonard Bernstein favorite, but something else entirely.
It was, in a sense, theater as life – or, more specifically, as a life-enriching experience, since it marked the moment when Castaneda, the director of GOAT, and actress Halstead did something they’ve been talking about doing for quite some time.
Before the enthusiastic crowd inside Goldman, they got on stage, took one another’s hands, exchanged solemn vows … and were married – in a wedding that seemed not only genuine and heartfelt, but also very much like an emotionally rich and very satisfying theatrical production.
As Castaneda noted before he got onto the stage, if the audience had shown up expecting a traditional wedding, they were way off.
It was, in fact, a much earlier production of “West Side Story” that brought the couple together, when Theatre Downtown produced the musical back in July 2006. It was a show that brought together Castaneda as the director, and Halstead in the role of Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo.
From there, the two performers would continue to work together – including in numerous GOAT productions – while at the same time falling in love.
And while “West Side Story” itself may not have offered audiences a happy ending, the production of “A West Side Story Love Story starring Leesa Halstead and Paul Castaneda,” as it was billed, most certainly did.
The play’s popular song “America” started the production, as fellow veteran actor Eric Pinder officiated the ceremony. There was humor galore, as well as highly emotional moments – as when Castaneda pledged to be the strongest supporter, role model and booster he could possibly be to Halstead’s sons – as well as moments of genuine romance. Theater veterans like Perez, McCabe and director and actor John DiDonna read aloud the couple’s vows of lasting love to one another.
There was a “cast party” reception that followed the wedding in the Patron’s Room of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, that at times looked and felt like a who’s who of Greater Orlando’s very family-like theater community.
With food and drinks readily available, a wedding cake just waiting to be cut, and an “audience” that has known one another for many years, it truly was a time to celebrate at a most festive — and joyous — occasion.

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