by Jeffrey Walker
WEST SIDE STORY, now playing through August 3 at Riverside Center, still has the power to enthrall audiences with Leonard Bernstein's symphonic jazz score and Stephen Sondheim's young lyrics.
This production frames the storytelling with a magnificent set design by J.D. Madsen. I am usually reluctant to start with the scenic design, but upon entering Riverside's theatre space, the sight of a section of New York City street corner, reaching to the sky and bathed in an amber glow strikes the senses. Central to the design is a remnant of the "El," or elevated rail tracks. The steel girders of the train tracks are incomplete and are pinned in by the close quarters of the buildings. Madsen's scenic design - aided by the atmospheric lighting by Catherine Girardi - makes a fitting crucible for the hot-tempers and passionate young love presented in this landmark of 1950s musical theatre.
Of course WEST SIDE STORY was adapted from Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET by the dream team of Jerome Robbins (original concept, direction and choreography), Arthur Laurents (book writer), Leonard Bernstein (score) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). These men broke new ground in 1957. The 1961 film further solidified WEST SIDE STORY's place in our American pantheon of musicals. The warring Capulets and Montagues of long-ago Verona, Italy, become the rival gangs of the Sharks - Puerto Rican immigrants - and the Jets - probably the sons of immigrants themselves, but of the more established Irish-Catholic, Jewish and European stock. They fight over turf and their feud is just as bloody as any with rapiers from the Renaissance.
Riverside offers a solid production, highlighting all the best parts of the show, starting with the leading performers. Riverside's WEST SIDE STORY Enthralls under the keen direction of Jay D. Brock. Brock helps his actors bring out truthful performances from his Tony, Maria, Anita and Bernardo. Each performer is strong in their own right, handling the acting and singing demands of the characters with ease. Matthew Hirsh as Tony is the boy next door who is gifted with an effortless voice that rings with grace. He makes "Something's Comin'" seem newly written. As his "Juliet," Quinn Vogt-Welch has the innocent beauty and soaring soprano to make a dream come true as Maria. When Hirsh and Vogt-Welch meet by chance at the "Dance at the Gym," you believe that love at first sight is possible. Their chemistry - in their scenes and their singing - makes the tragic love affair even more poignant by the end of the musical.
As the fiery Anita, Olivia Ashley Reed makes the part truly her own. Reed's singing and dancing are superb as she leads the lady Sharks and their mates in "America." (By the way this production takes a cue from the 1961 movie having the men and women perform "America" as a battle of the sexes. In the original, Anita and the women perform the number without their male companions.) Ryan Sellers is also perfectly cast as Bernardo, Maria's hot-headed brother and Anita's lover. Sellers is a strong dancer and has the cojones to exude masculinity in his scenes opposite the Jets.
As Tony's best pal and the leader of the Jets, David Vogel is a charming S.O.B. as Riff. Among the other strong performances come the veteran actors John Hollinger and Alan Hoffman as the only adults we see in the lives of the Jets and the Sharks. Hollinger is Doc, the big-hearted shop keeper who cannot understand what the warring gangs have to fight about. Representing the uniform of authority and the law, Hoffman plays the combined roles of Schrank and Officer Krupke. (One guy playing both cops was a money saving measure, I suppose.) Hollinger and Hoffman bring authority and gravitas to a pretty serious musical, but it works within the world Laurents has created for the modernized Shakespearean tragedy.
BWW REVIEWS: Riverside's WEST SIDE STORY EnthrallsThe ensemble of Jets and Sharks and their assigned lady friends handles the vocal and dance demands of this challenging show with skillful execution. I felt the dancing was the most effective in the small numbers "I Feel Pretty" and in the (dream) "Ballet Sequence" in which Tony and Maria envision an ideal world where conflict is replaced by harmony. For some reason, other dance sections in this production seemed cramped up and did not have the lyricism one would expect of WEST SIDE STORY. (The introduction and the "Dance at the Gym" were two sections, for example, where the choreography seemed stilted.) On the other hand, Shawna Walker Halliman's choreography was effective in "Gee, Officer Krupke" and "America." Her dances also seemed inspired by Robbins template while remaining fresh.
I know to some theatre-goers, WEST SIDE STORY is one of those downer of a shows. They would much rather escape a bit more and feel good at the end. When a musical aims high and hits the heights it intends to achieve, there is a huge pay-off. WEST SIDE STORY paid off in 1957, in 1961 and it pays off once again in 2014. Make a date with this Tony and Maria and find out how.
Riverside Center Dinner Theatre presents WEST SIDE STORY
Through August 3, 2014 at the Riverside Center, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406 (south of DC off of I-95). Call 540.370.4300 or visit Riverside Center's website HERE.