by Herbert Paine
Think about the combined genius of Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins and the driving inspiration of William Shakespeare that created West Side Story. Then realize how awesome a dare it is to mount this classic musical, to be true to its artistry, its complexity, and its messages ~ especially for an ensemble of teenage actors. And then, stand up and give a hearty hurrah for the cast of Valley Youth Theatre which has aced the challenge.
Directed by Bobb Cooper, VYT's Producing Artistic Director, the Jets and the Sharks explode onto the stage of the Herberger Theater with verve and muscularity.
The back alleys and ethnic rhythms of New York's gritty Upper West Side come to life thanks to a brilliant collaboration of theatrical elements.
Two scaffolds frame the stage and symbolize the cultural and tribal divide of two gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets, vying for control of the mean streets of their neighborhood.
First, there is the cast of superbly talented young actors, each playing their parts to the hilt and flooding the stage with electric energy. That they are the actual age of the characters they're portraying certainly adds to the authenticity of the production, but even more vital is the diversity of the cast, with a majority of the Sharks played by young men of Mexican or Puerto Rican background. Kudos to VYT for walking the talk of diversity!
Mike Sprenger (Tony) and Sedona Urias-Ramonett (Maria) are perfectly matched as the star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the mean streets who struggle to prove, if they can beat the odds, that omnia vincit amor. Their vocal range is impressive, and when they hit the high notes, they're channeling angels.
Urias-Ramonett is a gift, perhaps another one of VYT's stars in the making. She embodies Maria's sweet innocence, vulnerability, and idealism. In those moments when she joins with Sprenger in flights of fancy ~ "Tonight," One Hand, One Heart" ~ she evokes tenderness and passion. When she encounters a dreadful twist of fate, her cry that "Now I can kill too, because now I have hate!" is haunting. When she woefully pleads for a handshake between foes, her dramatic silence is poignant and riveting.
There is, however, no shortage of equally compelling and finely crafted performances. Just a few examples: Jonathan Ramirez as Bernardo and Michael Schulz as Riff are convincing as the leaders of their packs. Megan Farinella turns in a flashy and sassy performance as Anita. Sophia Deyden shines when she yearns for Puerto Rico in "America." Ally Lansdowne is delightful as Anybodys, the tomboy who wants to be a Jet.
Then, there are the young musicians in the pit, masterfully conducted by Mark Fearey, who deserve a standing O for serving up the rich and variegated dish of timeless compositions.
Whether it is switchblade-fast, finger snapping, jazzy, staccato dances or poignant balletic movements, the stunning choreography of this production is the other thread that makes for a seamless whole, and the credit for this accomplishment goes to Katie Casey and Lucas Coatney.
This is a dynamic and memorable production, one not to be missed, and a sure testimonial to the distinctive qualities that distinguish Valley Youth Theatre.
West Side Story runs through August 24th at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.