The Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre has brought the streets and alleys of New York City to the Maryland dockside with a youthfully brash production of "West Side Story."
The seasonal theater has been running summer stock in the capital city since 1966, when it first opened at the William Paca Gardens, and it has inhabited its current space in the Old Shaw Blacksmith Shop, near the City Dock area, since 1990.
Director Michael Quinn has cast this year's season opener, the classic Broadway musical, with a troupe composed mainly of high school students--many as young as 14 and 15--who play the Sharks and Jets with surprising power right from the start as they pour onto the stage out of windows, down fire escapes and over an eight-foot chain-link fence.
It's refreshing to see such a young cast in "West Side Story," and it's fitting, because the modern-day "Romeo and Juliet" tale is not about adults, after all.
Written by Arthur Laurents, with incomparable music by Leonard Bernstein, it tells the tragic story of Tony and Maria, star-crossed lovers kept apart by bigotry and a turf war between Tony's old gang, the Jets, and Maria's brother's Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.
Choreographer Tiffani Baldwin has retained much of the late Jerome Robbins's original dance steps, which are executed with mixed success; the little glitches are owed partly to a small stage area about the size of a boxing ring.
But the fight choreography, engineered by director Quinn, is extremely well-timed and drastically realistic. And Baldwin and Quinn make intelligent use of every spare inch of aisle and offstage space to make up for the cramped main stage.
Much of the strength of the Annapolis production is due to a life-size set designed by Peter O'Malley, with towering flats painted to represent the prison-brick walls of the West Side slums.
A junked car (an old Morris Minor) sits onstage and is used cleverly as a prop on various occasions. Portions of the scenery are movable, enabling the cast to transform the setting to indoor scenes in a flash.
The open-air venue of the theater adds greatly to the illusion, with phone poles, chimneys and brick facades of Annapolis looming beyond the stage.
Sounds of the street outside mingle with the (recorded) music and serve to enhance the realistic quality of the experience. Sound designers Folger Ridout and Dottie Meggers have overcome the potentially distracting noises offstage with an efficient body-microphone system.
A microphone is superfluous for Amanda Smear, who plays Maria with considerable stage presence and a mature, impressive singing voice. Her only drawback is that, being slightly taller than her co-star (and given that voice), it's hard to imagine Maria as the diminutive, "small-boned" girl her character is supposed to be.
By an odd contrast, Jeremy Ragsdale, as Tony, looks slightly more youthful than his character ought to be. Tony is the gang member who has outgrown the Jets and whom the rest of the guys look up to as a sort of older brother. Nevertheless, Ragsdale handles Tony's part--and his songs, including the tricky "Maria"--with ease.
Max Gross puts on a fine "New Yawk" accent as Riff, the Jets leader, and has a perfect singing voice for "The Jet Song" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" (a real crowd-pleaser).
Jason Vellon strikes an intense and insolent expression as Maria's brother, Bernardo, especially in the rousing comic number "America." Jennifer Sjolie, as Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, shares a show-stopping duet with Smear in "A Boy Like That."
And Don Becker, one of the few adults in the cast, is a powerfully dislikable creature as the racist detective Schrank, a much more hardened portrayal than you may have remembered from the classic 1961 film version of "West Side Story."
Word is already out that this is a fine show--the 208-seat theater was packed Saturday on the second weekend of the run--so if you plan to go, be advised to call early for reservations.
"West Side Story" continues at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through June 26, at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. Tickets are $10, or $8 for students, senior citizens and groups of 20 or more. The rest of the summer: "As You Like It," July 2-31; "Me and My Girl," Aug. 6-Sept. 4. Call 410-268-9212 for reservations.