Trinity Rep's current show is the classic 1957 musical "West Side Story". Based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", the story is as fresh and meaningful to contemporary auiences 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. Love and understanding is the solution in real life as it is in both shows. This well known story of the starcrossed lovers, Tony and Maria, takes place in New York City. The outside forces of friends, enemies, gang members and adults keep them from fulfilling their dream of everlasting happiness due to hatred and bigotry. This 20 member cast with imaginative and inventive direction by Amanda Dehnert, excellent musical direction by Karl Shymanovitz and high energy and athletic choreography by Sharon Jenkins, delivers the goods in a powerful and moving presentation with outstanding acting, singing and dancing to propel the audience to their feet at the conclusion of the show, making it one of the must see shows of the Spring season.
Amanda takes the well written Arthur Laurents script and makes it soar with the comic and tragic aspects of the show. She uses a black rectangular stage, (which the actors paint to show the change of location with white paint) scoreboard ( which tell the Act and Scene being performed )and bleachers for her set. She lets the libretto, music and dancing tell the story. Amanda uses the actors that are not in the main scene as a Greek chorus sitting in the bleachers and they move in and out of the scene when needed. Symbolism is her forte in this show. Some examples include having the two leads clad in white costumes to show their innocence and when their innocence is lost the costumes are marred with blood, the religious influence is denoted by Bernardo's cross tattoo on his chest and his appearance as a ghost in "I Have Love" to Maria and Anita representing a Christ like figure who tries to show his death has not been in vain as well as the use of candles in the wedding scene. The candles are also used when the Greek chorus becomes the wall that separates the lovers in the Ballet sequence which becomes a nightmare of the rumble and of the hatred that leads Tony to stab Maria in this nightmare sequence but they have hope during the "Somewhere" song when they walk on scaffolding from opposite sides of the theatre (read walking the tightrope here) to try to reunite only to find a gap still separates them at the end. (A very moving segment because both performers walk on this throughout the audience, involving them in the pitfalls that these tragic lovers have to overcome.) Brava on letting the audience use their imaginations to understand this wonderful storyline. 24 year old Karl Shymanovitz who was a mainstay musical director at Theatre by the Sea for the past four years, makes a triumphant return to RI, conducting a 26 piece orchestra of mentor and student musicians and obtaining perfection from them as well as vocal splendor from cast. Karl's keen insight to diction and vocal training shines through in this difficult Bernstein and Sondheim score. The most difficult vocal number in this show is the "Tonight" quintet and Karl has the Sharks, Jets, Anita, Tony and Maria pull it off beautifully, earning it a thunderous ovation. (One of Karl's musicians is Mike Sartini, an excellent percussionist who reunites with Karl having played the drums for him at Theatre by the Sea. Mike always delivers the goods with his playing.) One of the most important ingredients of this show is the choreography and the audience isn't disappointed here either. Sharon creates some excellent dances and the athletic prowess of this cast is the best I've seen. She gives them ballet, jazz and modern dance movements especially in the "Prologue", "Dance at the Gym", "Cool", "America" and the breathtaking, "Somewhere". (This song is given an emotional rendition by Rachael Warren who plays the tomboy, Anybodys, too.) Craig Handel choreographs the fight segments and the movements and direction of this scene is topnotch. The "Rumble" leading to the deaths of Riff and Bernardo leaves the audience stunned at the end of Act 1and the Ballet fight scene is just as scary with its intensity.
The two leads are very well cast in this show. Tony Yazbeck as Tony exudes the youthful charm of this role but is also athletic enough to show he was a former member of the Jets. His tenor voice captures the beauty and intensity of all his numbers from "Something's Coming" to "Maria" where he hits the high note perfectly and in the duets, "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart". Tony's acting runs the gamut of emotions from love at first sight to the ensuing exuberant pure love to the horror at killing someone to the anguish of thinking your true love is dead and to finally making your death scene believable. Not only does he excel in singing and acting but he is an outstanding dancer, too. Nina Negri as Maria is superb as this young Puerto Rican girl. She shows her naiveté but also gives her the strength and backbone to survive in the big city. Nina has a magnificent soprano voice which soars to the rafters. (She stood next to me in the audience for the last verse of the duet, "Tonight" giving me goosebumps, showing the director's strong blocking of the actors throughout the theatre gets them more closely involved with the play.) She also sings the wedding song with Tony and shows her comic side with the girls in "I Feel Pretty" where they dance around the room lit by candles. (A comic gem is the Greek chorus holding up handmirrors from their seats in the bleachers during this number, leading to howls of laughter from the crowd.) Nina and Tony have great chemistry together and you feel the pathos in his death scene where Nina delivers the powerful speech about hatred to the cast members. She shows off her dancing prowess during the ballet proving she is a triple threat performer with enormous talent. Kudos to two strong and talented leads.
The two gang leaders Riff and Bernardo are fantastically played by Tommar Wilson and Wilson Mendietta. They will frighten you with the intensity of their hatred towards each other and their singing and dancing is superb, too especially in the confrontation scenes and their death scenes. Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita is played by Courtney Laine Mazza. She gets to show off her comic side in "America" with girls and her dramatic side in "A Boy Like That" with Maria which is my favorite song. Courtney shows Anita's anguish and anger in that song as well as in the assault scene in the drugstore where she tells the Jets that Maria is dead. She dances up a storm with the girls in "America" and with Wilson in the school dance. The adults are played by Mark Peckham who doubles as the crass, meanspirited Lt. Shrank and the flamboyent high school teacher, Glad Hand (excellent in both roles), William Damkoehler as Doc, the weak owner of the drugstore and Ben Steinfeld as the idiotic Officer Krupke.
The Jet gang members are awesome, athletic dancers who can act and sing well, too. Joey Calveri is frightening as the hot headed, Action who is always ready to pounce on the enemy but he shows his humanity at the end of the show when he tries to help Maria after Tony's death. The comic song, "Officer Krupke" is about Action's depraived behavior and is a comic masterpiece. Christian Delcroix is Baby John, the young naive gang member and he shows off his tenor voice in the song when he sings his lines an octave higher as the social worker. (Wow, very impressive because it is usually done in falsetto but this kid has an unbelievable range.) Jason Lacayo who is an outstanding dancer, is Diesel who intimidates the others with his huge size, plays the judge in the song and is the person who starts to fight with Bernardo at the rumble. Gabriel Croom is A-rab who gets to trip Krupke after the rumble and sings the Case worker part in the song with the other two solo parts by Freddy Ramirez as Big Deal and Leon Le as Snow Boy. Anybodys, the tomboy is played by Rachael Warren who does a great job as the wanna be hoodlum and she is the one who helps Tony escape from the cops. Chino, the shy boy who is supposed to marry Maria is played by Nick Sanchez who shows what hate will do when he becomes enraged when Maria defends Tony and eventually kills him. The four talented girls who play Anita's friends are played by Alexandra Blackbird, Patty Brearley, Lori Holmes and Wi-Moto Nyoka. (Wi-Moto gets to play Rosalia, the girl who wants to go back to San Juan in the "America" song. Kudos to the supporting players and everyone who makes this show the success it is.
So for a fabulous musical trip to "West Side Story" at Trinity Rep, be sure to order your tickets right away because they are selling fast. Tell them Tony sent you.