Class Act’s “West Side Story” Soars with W.S.O.

Even before the curtain rose on last week’s groundbreaking collaboration of his Woodlands Symphony Orchestra and Class Act Productions, Music Director Dagang Chen took to the stage of the Nancy Bock Center of Performing Arts to make a special presentation to Woodlands founder, George Mitchell. The elegantly framed citation, beautifully inscribed with traditional Chinese characters, recognized Mitchell for his many talents, his solid success, persistent hard work, and great vision in the creation of The Woodlands. With that, Chen took to the podium to conduct his superb 32-piece orchestra for a memorable Class Act production of “West Side Story,” funded in part by a generous $10,000.00 grant from the Symphony Society of Woodlands. It would be money well spent and an evening to remember.

From the opening strains of the “Prologue” through the fading notes of the “Finale,” Chen and his outstanding musicians beautifully captured all the magic of Leonard Bernstein’s exquisite musical score. Meanwhile, the brilliant lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and original choreography of Jerome Robbins received the best of attention from Class Act’s youthful 48-member cast under the able direction of Keith Brumfield, Assistant Director, Katherine Goodfellow, and Choral Director, Robert Hunt. Superb choreography (Boni’s Dance & Performing Arts Studio) was in the capable hands of Bonnie Schuetz, Michell Wilkerson, and Dance Captain, Carolyn Simpson. Attractive skyline sets (Ed Gerhard/Roger Goodfellow), lighting (Jon Shelledy), and costumes (Lyndell Middleton/Sandy Braddock) all enhance the production.

But let us return to the extraordinary musical performances in this well-known tale of the Jets and the Sharks, rival white and Puerto Rican street gangs in the New York City slums of the 1950’s. While the cast is too large to list every member here by name, make no mistake about it. The young performers portraying the gang members are an essential part of the energy that propels this production to exceptional heights. The controlled chaos of the opening brawl is well choreographed and well executed as Chen guides the orchestra to perfect sound levels for the thrilling music laced with thunderous percussion. Scott Braddock (Riff) is in good voice and moves well as he leads his gang in the “Jet Song.”

The show rises to an even higher level with the arrival of Tony (Joe Mikolaj) as he sings a transcendent “Something’s Coming.” As was the case when I previously reviewed him in “Oklahoma,” handsome Mikolaj seems somehow to be illuminated from within. His eyes sparkle and his soothing tenor voice has a seemingly effortless charm that embraces the audience. His performance had an exceptional naturalness, and with continued growth, it would not surprise me to one day see this young man lighting up a New York stage.

Enter Tony’s love interest, Maria (Laura Estrada) and her best friend, Anita (Lindsay Gunther) as they enjoy girl talk in the bridal shop. The scene fades into a show-stopping highlight with the beautifully staged “Dance At the Gym” featuring wonderful ensemble dancing and the orchestra’s thrilling performance of the pulsing music. This is followed by the elegant contrast and charming grace of a “Maria” ballet with slow motion that seems to make time stand still as Tony and Maria fall in love. Mikolaj is mystical as he sings “Maria” with astounding breath control, phrasing, and vocal clarity, while his vision of young love is perfectly projected. With her lovely voice, the beautiful Estrada rises to the occasion in their sweet duet of “Tonight,” as Chen matches them drawing delicate softness from the orchestra.

Miss Gunther’s characterization of Anita moves freely between coyness, sarcasm and female independence. Even while dancing with a very natural grace, the attractive actress gives a powerful vocal rendition of “America” that is well supported by the fine singing of Rosalia (Megan Bolander) and the adorable song and dance antics of the Shark Girls. The guys get their turn in the drug store as Riff leads the Jets in the very hip and finger-snapping ballet of “Cool.”

There are a few adults in the cast, and Cliff Miller does a nice turn as the often-exasperated drugstore owner, Doc. Mark Hayter is convincing as the hard-nosed Lt. Shrank, Danny Guthrie does well as Officer Krupke, and Rion Bradock portrays Glad Hand, the dance hall manager who struggles to keep order.

There is an endearing sweetness as Tony and Maria pretend to wed in the bridal shop. The star quality of this pairing is evident in their haunting duet of “One Hand, One Heart,” and Mikolaj captures the hopes and dreams of youth as he leads the ensemble in a touching “Tonight” full of elegant counterpoints and orchestral crescendos. Intricate choreography characterized the frenzied “Rumble” that closed Act I.

Act II highlights included the playful “I Feel Pretty” from Maria, with the joyful assistance of Rosalia, Consuelo (Gloria Fuentes), and Francisca (Lauren Jordan). Sound levels here, as well in other scenes like the Drug Store, were sometimes uneven and could be improved.

The great vocal solo of Lauren Spencer highlighted the sweet and graceful “Somewhere” ballet; and the boys show a good sense of comedy and fun in the amusing “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Gunther and Estrada have a golden duet as they weave a touching tapestry in the counterpoints of “A Boy Like That” and “I Had A Love.” It was a shining moment in a show, which, like the “Romeo & Juliet” that inspired it, ends tragically. But one audience member, Michael Byrne of San Antonio, had a positive spin:

“I don’t get to these things that often, but seeing this show tonight I can tell the future of the nation is in good hands.” This critic could not agree more!

(The Villager    3.6.03)

(The Courier    3.14.03)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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