A Professional “West Side Story” from Class Act

Mature readers (I would never call us old) will recall the mysterious world of screenwriter Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” In each episode, the natural laws seemed somehow suspended, and the seemingly impossible would happen. Such was the case last night when I attended the remarkable Opening Night of the Class Act production of “West Side Story.” In my more than ten years of reviewing this outstanding youth theatre company, I have learned not to be surprised by excellence, but this $65,000.00 blockbuster production takes us into another world of dazzling theatrical wonder that no one could expect from a local “non-professional” production. In truth, this effort, superbly directed by Tina Kraft and Class Act co-founder, (along with Kathryn Goodfellow), Keith Brumfield, could not have been more professional. Allow me to elaborate.

Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins (who directed and choreographed the entire original New York production), the musical has a well-crafted book by Arthur Laurents, along with the lush musical score of Leonard Bernstein, and rich lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Taking place in Manhattan’s Upper West Side ghettos of the mid-1950’s, this tale of the young lovers, Tony (Derek Manning), and Maria (Kelley Peters), is set amid the street warfare of rival gangs of Hispanics (the Sharks) and whites (the Jets), and the story clearly takes its cues from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The soaring tenement set of designer Jonathan Shelledy is a show in itself, as dimly lit cast members easily roll and rotate sections between scenes that alternate from outdoors to indoors. Combine these elements with the beautiful costume designs of Carolyn Zirelli, and the whirling magnificence of the choreography from Fayla Curry, and you have a feast for the eyes. But more importantly, this “West Side Story” is a feast for the ears.

During the opening “Prologue,” that feast begins with a Broadway-quality, 18-piece orchestra, skillfully conducted by Musical Director, Rae Moses. Then it was on to the excitement and well-staged dancing of the “Jet Song,” with rich-voiced Jimmy Dolphin (as Jet leader, Riff), leading an amazingly polished group of young actors whose complex and thrilling ballet was highlighted by equally thrilling drum work from orchestra member, Robert Amyx. Anyone who thinks ballet cannot be masculine has got to see these athletic guys, and their equally talented counterparts in the rival Sharks gang. It is remarkable to see such skillful and confident dance performances from young men still in their teens. Wonderful!

Next, young Tony’s eager anticipation is beautifully captured by the smooth-voiced and beaming Mr. Manning during his mellow, “Something’s Coming.” And something is coming as Tony finally meets Maria at a neighborhood dance that is hilariously emceed in a good comic turn from James Canfield. The thrashing “Mambo” dancing here is a whirling kaleidoscope of color with the beautiful party dresses and pretty hairdos of the talented cast of “Shark Girls,” (hair & make-up designs from Claire and Kirsten Berger), as they join the guys in a magnificent dance sequence. That excitement fades in a delicate transition to Tony’s sweet “Maria,” and the pair’s gentle and exquisite love ballet. As the picture-perfect lovers embrace high atop the fire escape, their duet of “Tonight,” shimmers with romantic and vocal brilliance, while the beautiful Miss Peters’ solo moments are perhaps the most poignantly polished of any I can recall from Class Act. I say without hesitation that she could be playing this role on Broadway right now, and her performance would “bring down the house.”

Conflict begins to build toward a rumble between the Jets and the rival Sharks (fiercely led by Callen Myers as Maria’s brother, Bernardo). Abbey Moss is full of attitude and talent, giving a memorable performance as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita. Her singing and dancing are first-class all the way, and she, her friend Rosalia (Erica Rascon), and the Shark girls explode across the stage in a stunning, “America.” Then Riff leads the guys in a finger-snappin’ “Cool,” that is all that and more in yet another choreographic triumph under one of the evening’s many haunting and mystical lighting designs from Blake Minor and Al Fajardo. Sound designs from Troy Dingle were solid as well.

The audience is drawn ever more into the drama with the genuine warmth between Tony and Maria during their mock wedding vows in the charming Bridal Shop scene. That is capped by the joyful tenderness of a sublime “One Hand, One Heart,” duet that left me breathless with its perfection. Then ghostly shadows surround the ominous build-up toward rumble, while the ensemble dancing, frozen cast tableaus, and counterpoint singing bring the excitement of the staging to a fever pitch.

Act II has no shortage of delights as it opens with elegant Entr’acte music from the orchestra under soft blue lighting that peppered the dark set with an appealing glow. Peters returns with a glow of her own for an astounding “I Feel Pretty,” full of gleeful coyness, graceful movement, and lovely harmonizing during the playful fun with Maria’s friends, Consuela (Whitney Brandt), Francisca (Alyssa Weathersby), and Rosalia. The joy ends abruptly when a sobbing Maria learns her brother, Bernardo, has been killed by Tony in the rumble. Miss Peters’ performance at this point is so compelling it breaks your heart. The tension is broken somewhat by the dreamy Act II ballet sequence, as well as by Caroline Obkirchner’s wonderful solo of “Somewhere.” Then, under eerie red-orange lighting, the beautifully staged rumble ballet seemed very true to the vision of Jerome Robbins original choreography.

Young Aaron Boudreaux lit up the stage repeatedly during the evening, and was enthusiastically in charge as he led the Jets in a fun-filled and cop-mocking, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” that had the audience howling. He had plenty of help from Keith Hale, Terran Swonke, and the large cast of other Jets in this devilishly delicious romp. The entire cast was splendid, especially in ensemble moments of song and dance, but a few of the many members deserving mention include Will Rogers as the desperate Chino, feisty Morgan Starr as a Jet Girl named Anybodys, Trey Westerberg as Lt. Shrank, Tyler Lewis as Officer Krupke, and Craig Boudreaux as the kindly, Doc.

Ultimately things turn more serious as Anita and Maria share a powerful duet, with Miss Moss delivering a fiercely passionate, “A Boy Like That,” amid the counterpoint splendor of Miss Peter’s heart-wrenching, “I Have A Love.” But I refuse to reveal the dramatic conclusion. For that you will have to buy a ticket, and I suggest you do it soon, before Miss Peter’s and some of her talented co-stars get whisked away to stardom. It could happen!

West Side Story performances continue at the Nancy Bock Center for the Performing Arts, with a Sunday matinee today at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. performances next Friday and Saturday evenings. For tickets ($18) and information, call 936-273-3395, or visit the website at www.classactproductions.org.

Class Act Productions: A_Professional West Side Story

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 ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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