I did not see the 1957 Tony Award winning Broadway musical production of West Side Story, but I am well familiar with the 1961 Academy Award winning movie musical starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn--one of my all-time favorites.
Around the time of the musical's release, New York newspapers were filled with articles about gang warfare, thus making the story line timely. Set in the Upper West Side neighborhood of New York in the mid-1950s, the play explores the rivalry between two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds--the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks. To make matters worse, a former member of the Jets, Tony, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the Shark's leader, Bernardo. The results are both uplifting and explosive. In this dark tragedy, hate seemingly wins out over love, but at the end, there is a glimmer of hope after the ultimate sacrifice had been paid and three Sharks assist three Jets with carrying the lifeless body of Tony away from the tragic scene as the darkness descended upon the solitary silhouette of devastated Maria.
Walter Kerr, a critic of the time, wrote this about the play, "The radioactive fallout from West Side Story must still be descending on Broadway this morning. Director, choreographer, and idea-man Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons...the show rides with a catastrophic roar over the spider-web fire-escapes, the shadowed trestles, and the plain dirt battlegrounds of a big city feud...there is fresh excitement in the next debacle, and the next."
West Side Story is a powerful blend of acting, dance, and music. It requires a group of actors with a unique skill set--the ability to perform in all three categories. Kerr's words were a tribute to the play's cast, crew and director, and with those words in mind, Jerome Roberts and Company would unequivocally approve with what director, choreographer, and musical director David McLaughlin and Company assembled and accomplished on the humble stage of the James F. Dean Theatre.
The collection of changing scenes, masterfully handled by the crew, takes you on an emotional roller coaster ride carrying you to heights of ecstasy only to thrust you back down into the depths of despair. The set was phenomenal and the lighting was provocative. The dance choreography of 35 flailing bodies was a miracle of movement. The songs were executed near flawlessly and powerfully.
Olivia Juretich's captivating smile was only surpassed by her clean, crisp vocals, while her partner, Chris Berry, turned in a performance highlighted with power and passion, skillfully scaling fire escapes and fences to be with his beloved Maria. When together, their relationship was believably authentic and the two shined brightly in score favorites Tonight, One Hand, One Heart, and Somewhere.
Alex Shanko as Anita was a delight to watch executing her role and vocals with the necessary pizzazz demanded of her character. Honorable mentions go to Eric Brower (Riff), who advised his cohorts to play it Cool, Ethan Goodman (Bernardo) for great dance moves, and Robert Venne (Action) along with the rest of the Jets for their spot-on rendition of one of the more amusing pieces of the play, Gee, Officer Krupke. Zipping in and out of the shadows, Jean Gaston was the perfect choice for the wannabe a Jet tomboy, Anybodys. The more ominous figure of the play, Lt. Schrank, was skillfully played by towering Ernie Eliason and the least ominous figure, Glad Hands, was played by none other than, Ernie Eliason.
So many names, so many to mention. So, I will sum it up with this final note, beautifully done cast and crew. The provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot in West Side Story was a great way to kick-off the 40th season at the James F. Dean Theatre in Summerville.
Now showing from July 31st to August 16th
To purchase tickets, go to West Side Story.
The complete set of pictures.
Interesting note: Four-letter curse words were uncommon in the theater at the time. Laurents ultimately invented what sounded like real street talk but actually was not: "cut the frabba-jabba", for example. You will hear words like this used by the Jets.