An exploration of love, hate and gang rivalry, "West Side Story," adapted from Shakespeare's tragic "Romeo and Juliet," takes on a unique intensity with Leonard Bernstein's complex musical arrangements, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics and the demanding choreography of Jerome Robbins.
"West Side Story," which debuted on Broadway in 1957, is a difficult show to perform. In its production last weekend, Winston Churchill High School did well by the theatrical classic: Its Sharks bit hard, its Jets soared and, boy, could those girls mambo. Though many of the dances were reminiscent of the 1961 film version of the play, the actors brought unique expression to their roles and were supported by the tremendous energy of their respective ensembles and the versatile set.
Tony (Ben Hoffman) and Maria (Andi Voigtmann), ill-fated lovers with ties to the rival Sharks and Jets gangs, were allowed only a few moments alone together, but these moments were fueled by a dynamic vocal and physical chemistry. Hoffman's strong voice and presence were a complement to Voigtmann's softer voice and innocent characterization.
Opening with a well-paced and steady Jet song, Riff (Jonathan Carty) took effortless charge of the Jets. Anita (Amy Tilles), too, came on strong; alternately passionate and reserved, her wit fell evenly against the dry gravity of an intimidating Bernardo (Rami Ayyub). Conversely, the role of pushover Gladhand (Michael Butvinik) was comically grand.
The initial butt of the Jets' jokes, Anybodys (Talia Gottlieb) became more noteworthy as the show progressed.
The ensembles, particularly the Jets gang and the Sharks girls, backed the leads with immense energy and true-to-character flourishes, most enjoyably during the dance-off.
The production also was impressive from a technical standpoint. While the occasional crackle or over-amplification was noticeable, the sound was well coordinated. The dramatic lighting and fog, though distracting at times, were creative mood-setting devices. The set, though fixed, proved remarkably versatile, and, though Churchill's stage crew was visible, scene changes occurred quickly and precisely.
The standing ovation the cast, crew and orchestra received was well deserved. The show will be presented again this weekend.
Put a bunch of surly teenage boys on the streets of Manhattan in the throes of gang warfare. Then add jazz sneakers and make them pirouette across the stage, and you've got "West Side Story," aptly performed by Winston Churchill High School last weekend.
"West Side Story" opened on Broadway in 1957 with a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by director Jerome Robbins. The story, loosely based on "Romeo and Juliet," traces the romance between Tony, a founder and ex-member of the Jets gang, and Maria, a Puerto Rican immigrant whose brother Bernardo is the leader of the Jets' rival gang, the Sharks.
Andi Voigtmann gave a sparkling performance as Maria, animated and believable as a girl on the cusp of womanhood longing for romance and excitement. Her inability to take her eyes (and often her hands) off Tony (Ben Hoffman) made the love story compelling and authentic. Hoffman sang beautifully.
Amy Tilles played Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, with consistency and understated pathos. The talented Talia Gottlieb, as Jet wannabe Anybodys, was tough and fiery. Gottlieb raised the caliber of the Jets' group numbers with her precise and graceful dancing and, with Evan Howard, performed a beautiful pas de deux during the "Somewhere" dream ballet.
Throughout the play, the technique of spotlighting more gifted dancers helped to overcome imprecise dancing in the large ensemble numbers. The smaller group numbers, such as the Jets' comic song, "Officer Krupke," and the Shark girls' "America," were well staged and executed with great humor and precision. But some characterizations, though charming, seemed slightly too clean-cut for gang members.
The versatility of the simple set eliminated lengthy set changes. Makeup was occasionally a bit excessive, particularly after the rumble, and the stage crew was occasionally visible in the wings or during changes. The Winston Churchill Pit Orchestra played Leonard Bernstein's challenging score very well. The play's enduring popularity comes from its blend of jazzy dance numbers, provocative score and dignified treatment of powerful themes such as racism, love and loyalty. Churchill's production possessed all three elements in just the right proportions and featured a very gifted cast.