by Terrance Mc Arthur
Sharks and Jets. Street gangs. Turf war. Romeo & Juliet in the streets of New York City. “Tonight.” “Somewhere.” Mambo. Yep, it’s West Side Story, and it’s a Good Company Players production at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, playing through September 14.
Honestly, I’ve never been a big fan of the show, but this version, directed by Julie Lucido, has made me a convert. Maybe it’s the crush of 35 bodies on the Dinner Theater stage that creates more tension, but it plays as high conflict, a strong pace, and powerful characterizations. The choreography by Lucido and Greg Grannis harkens back to Jerome Robbins’ 1957 staging, with ballet moves and jazz stylings. All those bodies couldn’t be confined to the stage, and they pour out into the audience out of every opening the theatre space has.
The Puerto-Rican Sharks and the old-immigrant Jets are at war in the streets. Tony (Jordan Litz) has put the Jets behind him and has a job, but he’s dragged back into gang life by Riff (Daniel Lajune), who needs him for a war council with the Sharks. At a teen dance, he sees a vision of loveliness, Maria (Natalie Nielson), who is the sister of Bernardo (Edgar Gonzalez), leader of the Sharks. Naturally, Tony and Maria fall in love, and the course of true love runs very un-smooth, following the pattern of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.
Litz is tall and good-looking (according to a starry-eyed woman I talked to), and he was mature, love-struck, vengeful, and anguished, in turn, fleshing out the script with emotion. Maria is often called a “baby” in the show, and she is supposed to be young and naïve, convinced that love can conquer all obstacles, until her final indictment of the society that turned her romance into a tragedy. Nielson is lovely, wide-eyed, and possessed of a tender voice with solid quality. People expect Natalie Wood in the role, but the movie-Maria wasn’t really Natalie; Marnie Nixon did the singing. This Maria is all-Natalie (Nielson), all the time.
Lajune is reminiscent of Russ Tamblyn (Riff in the 1961 film), but stronger and rougher. Gonzales is cool, aloof, and dangerous. Tyler Branco, who seems to play everything at GCP (He was Shrek, and he will soon be Gomez Addams in The Addams Family), shines as Action, singing the classic comic-relief song of Act Two, “Officer Krupke.” Marisa Sanchez is gritty and spiteful as Anita, Bernardo’s girl. Michael Sutherland is a suitably-sleazy police detective who thinks he knows everything about juvenile delinquents and how to deal with them. Kiaya Hargis is wannabe-tough as the girl who wants to be a Jet, slouching around, looking like Chachi in Happy Days. Chris Hoffman lends solid support as Doc, owner of the drugstore/candy store (depending on your definition of “candy”) where Tony works.
In 2009, a Broadway revival changed Stphen Sondheim’s lyrics for the Sharks and their girls to Spanish. If you know the original songs, you’ll figure it out. Love and rivalry. Leonard Bernstein music. Go see it.
West Side Story runs at Roger Rocka’s through September 14. You can purchase tickets on their website or by calling their box office 559-266-9494 or 800-371-4747. You can also find more info on their KRL theatre event page.
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