Theatre Mirror Reviews - "West Side Story"

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entire contents copyright 2009 by Tony Annicone

"West Side Story"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

RISE on Broadway's current show at the Columbus Theatre is the classic 1957 musical "West Side Story". Based on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", the story is as fresh and meaningful to contemporary audiences as it was in 1591 for the original play as well as in the 1950's. The 1961 film version won 10 Academy Awards including best movie of the year. Hatred and violence can't solve problems they create new ones while love and understanding are the solutions in real life as it is in both shows. The well known story of the star-crossed 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 39 member cast under the insightful direction of Laura Perez-Westfall delivers the goods in a powerful and moving presentation with outstanding acting, singing and dancing to propel the audience to their feet at the show's conclusion. Who could ask for anything more!

Director Perez-Westfall takes Arthur Laurents well written script and makes it soar in both the tragic and comic aspects of the show. Just when you feel your heart is about to break in half, the script has a comic moment to brighten things up. Laura cast the show perfectly from the major roles to the minor ones She is helped in this huge task by music director Jonathan D'Amico and his fifteen piece orchestra. (The violins are phenomenal in the ballads while the horn and percussion section excel in the upbeat numbers.) The Bernstein and Sondheim score is rendered beautifully by the musicians and vocalists. D'Amico's attention to diction and vocal training shines through and the lyrics are heard to the back of the theatre. The most difficult number in this show is the "Tonight" quintet and Jonathan 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 either. Choreographer Angela Mendez owner of local Rising Stars Dance Academy, makes this cast dance its feet off with ballet, jazz and modern dance. It is an exciting mix of the original Jerome Robbins choreography with mambo, salsa and slapstick. Her dancing expertise is seen in "Prologue", Dance at the Gym,(with the whole cast doing fantastic work) "Cool","America" and the breathtaking "Somewhere" sung by Elizabeth Luca. Another standout is the choreographed "Rumble" leading to the death of two of the characters and the dance, fight and nightmare section of "Somewhere".The mixture of the movements and the direction of the fight at the end of Act 1 leave the audience stunned but begging for more good things to follow. The blending of these three ingredients as well as a talented cast make this a must see show.

The two leads are a couple of the best Tony and Maria's I have seen including the movie version. The handsome blond haired Stephen Pare makes Tony, a strong hero you can relate to from the first time you see him. Tony's first number is usually a throw away song since it is not as well known but Stephen makes "Something's Coming" just as important as "Maria" and "Tonight". His majestic tenor voice soars to the top of the scale with every note as clear and strong as the other. The other terrific thing is that Stephen can act as well as he can sing. His acting prowess is seen in these various situations:love at first sight, the ensuing exuberant pure love, the horror of killing someone , the anguish of thinking your loved one is dead and finally making your own death on stage believable. Stephen handles all these transitions splendidly.The stunning brunette, Elizabeth Luca as Maria is Stephen's equal in every way. From her first scene in the dress shop she shows the audience the spunkiness of Maria. Elizabeth makes Maria into a strong character who stands up for what she believes in. The helps to bring the character to fruition, making her better understood to the audience rather than the wimpy ones of past productions. Elizabeth has a gorgeous soprano voice which soars to the heights of perfection. She and Stephen have such great chemistry together that you cry with her when Tony is killed. Her final confrontation with Chino and the crowd show the devastating effects of gang violence and send chills down your spine when she waves the gun at them as her dramatic words ring true. Laura has Velma (Courtney Pritt, Riff's girlfriend put her arm around her before she exits and then Baby John puts his arm around her escorting her offstage as Liz sobs.) Their duets are just as wonderful especially the fire escape duet "Tonight" where they capture the naivete of Tony and Maria, making everyone remember their first love and in "One Hand,One Heart" where they pretend to get married despite their different backgrounds. Elizabeth and the girls have fun in "I Feel Pretty" which shows she can handle the comic moments, too. Elizabeth. Chandler Cross, Chantel Venkataraman and Bethany Bergeron show off their dancing prowess in this number. Two outstanding leads make this a very memorable show. Bravo!

These two leads are strongly supported by 37 other performers. Gang leaders Riff (Timothy Crepeau who is graduating in May from Worcester State College) and Bernardo (Marcus Rivers who was a contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance? on TV) are excellently cast. (Boy, can both of them not only dance but do flips and other athletic dance moves.) Both deliver strong performances especially in the confrontation scenes and the fight scene leading ultimately to their deaths. This scene is handled beautifully and is believable to the audience in its realistic presentation. Tim does a great job in "The Jet Song" with his gang members and "Cool" where he exerts his control over them especially the hotheaded, Action who is always itching for a fight. Tim and Steve also portray the best friends as close as brothers relationship perfectly with their credo from "Womb to Tomb". Marcus shows his dancing expertise in the Dance at the gym and the rumble. It's hard to believe that this is one of his first roles in theatre. Anita is played by Erica Pasel with a wonderful acting ability that makes the spitfire girlfriend of Bernardo come to life. She handles the comic "America" sung and danced with the girls with Bethany as the dumb Rosalia who wants to return to San Juan. My favorite song, the dramatic "A Boy Like That"/ "I Have a Love" duet with Maria. ("When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong" are Sondheim's powerful lyrics) Anita's anguish, hurt and anger are displayed perfectly in "A Boy Like That" as well as in the final drugstore scene where the Jets have turned into the depraved characters they just sang about in "Officer Krupke" which is a gem of a song sung by the Jets who are in perpetual motion during it. After Anita is attacked she turns on them , showing her strength by telling them Maria is dead. Erica handles this scene by delivering a topnotch performance leaving the stage in triumph over the hoodlums. She also sings and dances up a storm throughout the show.

The usually underwritten adult roles are delivered with the right amount of conviction by Craig Leonard who plays the hard-ass cop, Lt. Shrank, Chuck Cross as the foppish school teacher Glad Hand,( Providence school superintendent Thomas Brady plays the role on March 27 and Providence Mayor David Cicilline on April 3) Sam Hood as the hysterically funny Officer Krupke and Shelly Whittle as Doc, the weak drugstore owner who finally develops a backbone by throwing the gang out after they attack Anita and slaps Tony into reality when he tells him Maria is dead. Shelly usually plays comic roles but this time he delivers the goods in this dramatic part! The fantastic singing and dancing Jets are played by Michael Maio as Action who frightens the audience with his intensity and angry outbursts, sings the lead in "Gee, Officer Krupke" where he tells the story of his life in it. This song is a hoot! Cameron Marcotte plays Baby John, the youngest gang member and plays the female social worker (complete with kerchief and falsetto voice) Michael Ferron plays A-rab who plays the German shrink, Connor Wright as Diesel who plays the judge, Nolan Burke as Big Deal, Michael Campbell as Snowboy who plays Officer Krupke and Kristen Fagan as Anybodys who plays the tomboy with a lot of grit and heart who rescues Tony after the rumble. The Sharks are as impressive as the Jets in their singing and dancing. The shy Chino who turns into a cold-blooded killer by the end of the show is played by Jhomphy Ventura who I last reviewed in "Assassins" at URI nine years ago and he is the stage combat captain.The impressive set is by Pat Ferron and includes a replica of the West Side Highway overpass. Costumes are by Sharon Cross, Ashley D'Amico and Amy Elsbecker. The historic Columbus Theatre was built in 1926. Why bother to go to New York to see the revival on Broadway when you have Broadway right here in Providence. So for a superb rendition of this classic show, be sure to catch "West Side Story" before it's too late.

"West Side Story" (27 March - 5 April)
The Columbus Theatre, 270 Broadway, PROVIDENCE RI
1(401) 441-5011

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide