Rhode Island Theatre Ensemble's winter production is the classic 1957 musical "West Side Story". The show is based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and is transported to modern-day New York City. The story is as fresh and meaningful to current day audiences as it was in 1591 for the original play as well as in the 1950's. Hatred and violence don't solve problems they create new ones with love and understanding everyone as the solution in real life as well as in both shows. The well known story of the starcrossed lovers, Tony and Maria, takes place in New York City with the outside forces of friends, enemies, gang members and adults keeping them from fulfilling their dream of everlasting happiness due to hatred and bigotry. The idealistic lovers find themselves caught between the warring street gangs, the "American" Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. The insightful direction of Chris O'Neill is rewarded by the thunderous applause of the audience at the conclusion of the show.
Director O'Neill takes the well written Arthur Laurents script and casts the show splendidly from the leading roles to the minor ones. He is helped in this task by musical director Derek Doura and his orchestra. The Bernstein and Sondheim score is rendered beautifully by the musicians and vocalists. Derek's attention to diction and vocal training shines through and the lyrics are heard and understood to the back of the theatre. The most difficult number is the "Tonight" quintet and he has the Sharks, Jets, Anita, Tony and Maria pull it off with ease. One of the most important parts of this show is the choreography and the audience isn't disappointed here. Choreographer Angela Mendez Pontarelli makes this cast dance their feet off with ballet, jazz, mambo, cha cha and modern dance movements in various numbers especially in the "Prologue", "Dance at the Gym", "Cool" and "America". Another standout is the choreographed "Rumble'' which leads to the death of two of the characters. The mixture of the movements and Chris' direction of the fight at the end of Act 1 leave the audience stunned by it and begging for more good things to come.
The two leads do a terrific job. Matt Gillett makes Tony, a strong hero you can relate to from his first entrance onstage. He recently moved to RI from Ohio and reminds you of a young Josh Groban. Tony's first number is usually a throw away number since it isn't as well known as the others. Matt makes "Something's Coming" just as important as "Maria" and "Tonight". His powerful tenor voice reaches to the top of the scale with the high notes and he also shows off a strong falsetto. Matt acts as well as he can sing. The love at first sight, the exuberant pure love, the horror at killing someone, the anguish at thinking your loved one is dead and finally making your own death on stage believable are handled splendidly. Eliizabeth Parrillo is topnotch as Maria. From her first scene in the dress shop she shows the spunkiness of the character. This Maria stands up for what she believes in. Liz has a gorgeous soprano voice which soars off the charts. She and Matt have wonderful chemistry together that you shed many tears with her when Tony is killed. Their duets are marvelous especially the fire escape duet "Tonight". They capture the naivete of Tony and Maria, making everyone remember their first love. They also do terrific work in "One Hand, One Heart" and the heart wrenching "Somewhere". Liz and the girls have fun in "I Feel Pretty" which shows off her comic side.
These two leads are supported strongly by the other cast members. Gang leaders Riff played by Michael Harrison and Bernardo played Darnell Nash are very well cast. Both deliver strong performances especially in the confrontation scenes and the ultimate death scene. This scene is very realistic. Michael also does a great job in "The Jets song" and "Cool" where he exerts his control over the gang especially the hotheaded Action who is always itching for a fight. Darnell and his gang members sing and dance to "America" with Anita and the girls. Laura Westfall plays Anita, the spitfire girlfriend of Bernardo. She delivers a powerful performance in this role. Laura handles the comic "America" sung with the girls and my favorite song, the dramatic "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" duet with Maria. Her anguish, hurt and anger are displayed in that song as well as in the assault scene in the drugstore. The Jets have turned into the depraved characters they just sang about in "Officer Krupke" which is a comic gem of a song by the Jets. They are in perpetual motion throughout it and their performance stops the show with sustained laughter. After Anita is attacked she turns on them, showing her strength by saying Maria is dead. Laura also sings and dances up a storm during the show.
The usually underwritten roles of the adults are handled with the right amount of conviction by Roger MacDonald who plays hardass Lt. Schrank, Gordon Dell as the foppish Glad Hand, Mark Ramos as the comic Officer Krupke and James Archambault as Doc, the weak drugstore owner who finally develops a backbone by throwing the Jets out after they attack Anita and slapping Tony into reality when he tells him that Maria is dead. The topnotch Jet gang members are played by David Groccia as Action, Nick Gifford as Diesel, Michael Campbell as Arab, Benjamin Burbine as Snowboy, Mark Blatchford as Baby John, Tom Lavallee as Big Deal and Tyler Worcester as Geetar. Jackie McCoy is terrific as Anybodys, the tomboy and plays the part with a lot of grit and heart. She helps Tony escape after the rumble. They dance and sing their hearts out in these roles as do the Sharks. Kudos to everyone who makes "West Side Story" a wonderful musical treat for the winter season.