REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Musical Theatre Intensive is a five-week program designed to challenge serious musical theatre students in a professional setting. The program offers intermediate to advanced training in acting, singing and dancing. This summer's production, which concludes this weekend at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, is West Side Story, the 1957 musical adaptation of Romeo & Juliet that features an unforgettable score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim.
Director Brian McDonald has not only assembled a large cast of superbly talented singers, dancers, and actors, but he also found a way to include a full-eighteen piece orchestra into the pit-less Rubicon theatre. The building that has housed the Rubicon since 2000 was originally a church, constructed in 1923. With no room for an orchestra pit, Rubicon productions have been mainly plays with small casts and the occasional musical, with accompaniment limited to instruments that can fit on the stage itself. For West Side Story, musical director Miriam Arichea situated the orchestra, led by Daniel Newman-Lessler, in the building's rehearsal room in the basement, with the sound piped into the theater remotely. West Side Story's lush and musically intoxicating score requires no less than a full orchestra and the result is the next best thing to having the musicians in the theater itself.
The cast is led by the superb Michael Byrne as Tony and Kat Monzon as Maria. Byrne's silvery, clear tenor has highlighted many shows in Ventura County but never as gloriously as in this show. His early solos: "Something's Coming" and "Maria" are exquisitely passionate in their delivery while Monzon matches the emotional intensity in the euphoric "Tonight" and the coquettish "I Feel Pretty."
As marvelous as the two leads are, the two actors portraying the rival gang leaders are equally magnetic. Parker Harris is lean and athletic as Riff, the charismatic leader of the Jets while Brandon Molina seeths with Latin sexuality as the Sharks' líder de la banda, Bernardo. Rounding out the lead performers are Natalie Graham as a sensuous and vivacious Anita, the excellent Jesse Graham as Action, and Cassidy Craig as Anybodys, the tomboy wannabe for the Jets.
West Side Story is normally performed on a large stage because of the major dance sequences: the opening Prologue, the dance at the gym, "Cool," and the rumble under the highway. Director McDonald and c0-director/choreographer Carolanne Marano make use of the entire theater, with cast members ignoring the stairs in either wing by leaping off the stage, and then thundering up and down the aisles during the various action and musical scenes. Marano has done an amazing job choreographing the large-scale dance sequences without condensing the number of cast members. Confining the same number of performers into a smaller space actually makes these scenes even more exhilarating. The cast's youthful exuberance and especially their supreme athleticism make this West Side Story a musical decathlon.
In addition to the physical abilities of the cast, the acting is outstanding as well; the passion, the fear, and the blind hatred of the Jets and Sharks for each other are palpable and believable. Equally stunning is the Act II dream ballet during the exquisite "Somewhere." Even "Gee, Officer Krupke," normally used as comic relief in between tragedies, is a highlight in itself, with the Jets' physicality playing a key role in the humor.
No matter how many times you've seen West Side Story before, you owe it to yourself to see this production. Despite having only five weeks' rehearsal, the cast and crew have created a thrilling and emotionally rich production that makes it well worth the drive to Ventura. Buddy boys and chicks: go see this show.
West Side Story plays at the Rubicon Theatre Company through Sunday, August 13. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.