Theatre-by-the-Sea'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 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.Love and understanding eveyone is the solution in real life as in both shows. The well known story of the starcrossed lovers, Tony(Michael Hunsaker) and Maria(Marla Schaffel), 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 24 member cast with insightful direction by Jerome Vivona 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 Vivona takes the well written Arthur Laurents script and makes it soar in both the tragic and comic aspects of the show. Just when you feel like your heart is going to break in half the script has a comic moment to brighten things up. Mr. Vivona casts the show splendidly from the leading roles to the minor ones. He is helped in this task by musical director Thomas Hojnacki and his orchestra. The Bernstein and Sondheim score is rendered beautifully by the musicians and vocalists. Hojnacki'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 Thomas 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. Co-choreographers Jennifer Howard and Becky Timms make this cast dance their feet off with balletic, jazz and modern dance movements in various numbers especially the "Prologue",Dance at the Gym, "Cool", "America" and the breathtaking "Somewhere". (The colored lights on the scrim plus the emotional singing by Jennifer Lewis and the ballet dance of Maria & Tony and two other couples are stunning.) Another standout is the choreographed "Rumble" leading to the death of two of the characters.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 the best Tony and Maria I have ever seen including the movie version. Michael Hunsaker makes Tony a strong hero you can relate to from the first time you see him. Tony's first number is usually a throw awy number since it's not as well known as the others. Michael makes "Something's Coming" just as important as "Maria" and "Tonight". His majestic tenor voice reaches to the top of the scale with every note as clear and strong as the other. Michael can act as well as he can sing. The love at first sight, the ensuing exuberant pure love, the horror at killing someone, the anguish of thinking your loved one is dead and finally making your own death on stage believable are handled splendidly. Offstage Michael is an author of a play, if he writes as well as he acts, sings and dances we have a new playwright in our midst,too. And he is only 24 or 25 years old! Amazing! Keep up the good work. Marla Schaffel as Maria is Michael's equal in every way. From her first scene in the dress shop she shows the audience the spunkiness of Maria. Marla makes Maria a strong character who stands up for what she believes in. This helps make the character more alive and better understood to an audience rather than the wimpy ones of past productions. Marla has a gorgeous soprano voice which soars to the heights of perfection. She and Michael have such great chemistry together, you cry with her when he is killed.Their duets are just as wonderful especially the fire escape duet "Tonight". They capture the naivete of Tony and Maria and make everyone remember their first love. Marla and the girls have fun in "I Feel Pretty" which shows she can handle the comic moments, too. An outstanding performer who brings her talents to Broadway in November, 2000 when she will appear in "Jane Eyre" in the title role. Keep your eye on Michael and Marla, extremely talented pros!
These two leads are supported strongly by the other twenty-two performers. Gang leaders Riff(Randy Bobish) and Bernardo(Lucio Fernandez) are well cast. Both deliver strong performances especially in the confrontation scenes and the ultimate death scene. This is handled very well and is believable to the audience in its realism. Randy does a great job in "Cool" where he exerts his control over the gang especially the hotheaded Action(Sean Mamola) who is always itching for a fight.
Paige Dubois Wolff, a Rita Moreno look-alike but who acts like Chita Rivera plays the spitfire girlfriend of Bernardo, Anita. Her acting is wonderful. She handles the comic"America" sung with the girls and my favorite, the dramatic "A Boy Like That" duet with Maria perfectly.(Both Paige and Marla's Spanish accents are surperb and arer maintained in their singing numbers,too) 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 depraived characters they just sang about in "Officer Krupke"(a comic gem sung by the Jets who not only sang but are in perpetual motion throughout it) After Anita is attacked she turns on them and shows her strength by saying Maria is dead. Paige handles this scene by delivering a powerhouse performance leaving the stage in triumph over the hoodlums. She also sings and dances up a storm throughout. Great job.
The usually underwritten roles of the adults are delivered with the right amount of conviction by Steve Fabrizio who plays the hardass Lt. Shrank and the foppish high school teacher Glad Hand(What a Hoot!), James D. Carroll as the hysterically comic Officer Krupke and Tony Wichowski 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. (The best rendition of Doc I've ever seen, too.)
The fantastic Jet gang members are played by Sean Mamola (Action)who frightens the audience with his strong angry outbursts (The song Off. Krupke is sung to him and it fits the character to a tee.) Christopher Sloan (Baby John)the young naive gang member (he sings the female social worker in the song hysterically) Michael Twist(Diesel) the tallest gang member who dances with ease, Michael Jablonkski (A-rab)who trips Krupke (has a fantastic tenor voice in the cabaret after the show which he displayed in "Corner of the Sky"), Brent D. Kuenning(Big Deal) who wears glasses and a hat, Derek Staranowski(Snowboy/Nibbles) who doubles as a Jet & a Shark and last but not least Lynn Jordan(Anybodys) who plays the tomboy with a lot of grit and heart, she actually helps Tony escape the first time. All these performers acted and reacted very well in all their scene showing that listening to your fellow performer is as important as doing your lines. Great dancing guys! The dancing and singing Jet girls are Jennifer Lewis, Jennifer Howard and Lea O'Connell(who doubles as a Shark girl).
The Sharks are as impressive as the Jets. Edward L. Matias plays the shy Chino who turns into a coldblooded killer by show's end. (Good transition!) Bill Biondolino plays Bernardo's righthand man, Pepe. He makes a realistic threatening thug who dances extremely well throughout especially in "Somewhere". George Nieves(Indio) stepped in at the last minute to play another thug who dances well. The talented Shark girls are played by Jill Braverman(the bubblehead who wants to move back to San Juan in "America"-great voice!), Sara Schatz(the bleached blonde) and JIll K. Harper. Great job, Sharks!
Added praise to scenic designer Jeff Modereger who's outdoor New York set and the various interiors moved on and off with ease making scene transitions quickly. I loved the fire escape/balcony set. Praise to the costume designer Jane Alois Stein and her multitude of 1950's costumes. Kudos to everyone who makes WEST SIDE STORY the must see show of the summer at Theatre-by-the-Sea.