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Something quite remarkable is happening at the Owen Theatre in Conroe, Texas. For those within the sound of my journalistic voice, I would recommend obtaining tickets to the Players Theatre Company’s splendid production of WEST SIDE STORY before the word-of-mouth results in an inevitable sellout for the entire run. It was already a full house on the recent night of my attendance, and I can readily understand why. With its exquisite music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and solid book by Arthur Laurents, this classic American musical of course needs little introduction. But in this case it has become a polished gem in the skilled hands of director, Mary Yost, and choreographer, Melody Johnson. The pair was triumphant with The Players’ 2015 production of Bye Bye Birdie, and what they have achieved here, with this talented local cast and crew of nearly four dozen, is nothing short of miraculous.
The familiar, and ultimately tragic plot, surrounds the clashes between two 1950’s neighborhood teenage gangs in Manhattan, the Puerto Rican Sharks, and their white rivals, The Jets. The simple and very functional set design of Roger Ormiston suggests a ghetto neighborhood with no shortage of graffiti, and quickly converts to depict a street, backyard, gymnasium, bridal shop, bedroom or drugstore. The sometimes shadowy, sometimes electrifying lighting designs of Mr. Ormiston enhance each scene. Two theatrical elements stand out in making this a must-see production. First, the dancing of this energetic young cast is simply amazing. One can only wonder how many hours of rehearsal were required to achieve the brilliantly designed and synchronized numbers that have a professional polish one might not expect from a community theatre. That is apparent from the very first scene with the well-staged and acrobatic street fighting of the Sharks, led by Bernardo (Sean Ari DeLeon), and the Jets, led by Riff (Austin Colburn). Mr. Colburn leads “The Jet Song,” with a commanding high energy nicely echoed by the ensemble.
The second element that takes this production to levels of truly memorable excellence is the outstanding vocal talent of co-stars, Jordie Viscarri as Tony, and the very beautiful Cara Cavenaugh Woodward as Maria. Tony and Maria are the story’s star-crossed lovers, based on an idea of the show’s original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, and inspired by Shakespeare’s tale of Romeo and Juliet. We first hear Mr. Viscarri’s fine voice as he beautifully performs Tony’s song full of youthful and eager anticipation, “Something’s Coming.” The fine staging has that scene quickly dissolve into the whirling choreography of the colorful, “Dance in the Gym,” highlighted by lovely costumes for the ladies designed by director, Yost. The intricately woven patterns of the Mambo dancing are amazing to behold. It gently evolves into a sweet first-encounter ballet between Tony and Maria that is playfully elegant. But racial hatreds begin causing trouble when Maria’s brother, Bernardo, lashes out at Jet member, Tony, for dancing with his sister. When smooth-voiced Mr. Viscarri sings a warm and mellow, “Maria,” it is clear how he was selected for this leading role. The fire escape love duet that follows for Tony and Maria is clearly tipping its hat to Romeo and Juliet, and we find ourselves falling in love with this couple. Meanwhile, in one musical number after another, vocal director, Robert Lewis, has also drawn vocal excellence from his large ensemble cast, making this show a joy to the ear as well as the eye. That excellence is readily apparent as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Caylin Keliehor) and her friend, Rosalia (Kathleen Baker) lead the Shark Girls in the sensual rhythms and lively antics of the amusing song, “America.” The guys soon have their turn as Riff leads them in the slick and complex dance moves of, “Cool.”
There are more delights from this huge cast that include a guest performance of the song, “Somewhere,” by Christina Haynes, and supporting roles for Gabriel De la Fuente as Chino, Marc Wilson as drugstore owner, Doc, David Herman as the suspicious Lt. Schrank, Steve Murphree as the bumbling Officer Krupke, and Jason Ohn as Glad Hand. But before Act One is over the audience is transported heavenward by Tony and Maria’s imagined wedding scene during the beautiful, “One Hand, One Heart.” If that is not enough bliss, the couple follows with the exquisite counterpoints of a superb, “Tonight,” before a dramatically staged gang rumble hints of the troubles that lay ahead in Act Two. For those details you will need to buy a ticket, and I suggest you do it soon. They are going fast!