Wednesday, April 13, 2016

West Side Story

“West Side Story” — the classical musical with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — debuted on Broadway in 1957 and set a musical style that moved musical theater in a whole new direction.

It opened last weekend at the Woodland Opera House, under the direction of Angela Baltezore, with musical direction by Dean Mora and vocal direction by James Glica-Hernandez.

“West Side Story” is, of course, the “Romeo and Juliet” story, modernized and set on the mean streets of New York. It revolves around the running feud between the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and the Jets (native New Yorkers). Some of the material (particularly the barely censored language, such as “Gee, Officer Krupke — krup you”) seems a bit dated, but the hatred between gangs is, sadly, even more relevant today.

Those in the audience opening night were in for a big treat. This is a wildly energetic show, with powerful performances and lively dancing (choreographed by Staci Arriaga).

There are 10 newcomers in the 28-member cast, which may account for the quality of the overall performances, several of which were outstanding.

Donovan McNeely was powerful as Riff, the leader of the Jets gang. Likewise, most of his crew rose above the norm for memorable performances.

Daniel Silva fairly crackled with barely repressed rage as Action, while Bailey Robinson-Burmester was dynamic as A-Rab and Jordan Hayakawa works her darndest to make herself one of the gang as Anybodys.

The Sharks were led by Kevin Gruwell as Bernardo, a powerful performance. The extra heft on his body made for a more menacing Bernardo, unquestionably the leader of this gang.

Raymond Whitney as Chino had a smaller role, as the potential mate for Maria, but in the crucial moment, his pain and anger were palpable.

Of course, the lovers in this story are Tony (Joshua Wheeler) and Maria (Giana Gambardella), both newcomers to Woodland. In a run-of-the-mill production of this show, Wheeler, an excellent singer, could stand tall as Tony. But when up against the passion and fire of the members of the two rival gangs, his energy just could not match and he paled in comparison, though still gave a fine performance.

Gambardella, on the other hand, gave an impeccable performance. She beautifully portrays the innocent excitement of a young girl falling in love for the first time, never more evident than in her “I Feel Pretty,” as she prepares for her date with Tony, and the anguish of a young woman who feels her life crashing in around her as Tony falls victim to Chino’s gun.

Another newcomer to Woodland is Christina Castro as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Castro is a real firecracker, showing all the Latin temperament that Anita should. She may have been at her best in the number “America,” flashing her colorful skirts (costumes by Denise Miles).

Her duet with Maria (“A Boy Like That”) was outstanding, as she struggles to balance her grief at Bernardo’s death, her anger at Maria for being in love with his killer, and her love for Maria, understanding the depth of Maria’s feelings for Tony.

There is a full orchestra of seven under the baton of Dean Mora. I was most impressed by Cassandra Brokken, who often played her bass, in that cramped orchestra space, almost like a guitar.

There’s not much you can do to pretty up a stage to represent the back streets of a New York slum, but scenic designer John Bowles has found creative ways to use chain-link fences and creates enough levels, using boxes and walls, to allow the men to jump, somersault and chase each other around the street like a Cirque du Soleil rehearsal.

This is a must-see show for lovers of musical theater. All involved in this show, whether on stage or backstage, can be proud of the end result their hard work.

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