Tony and Maria are in love, but their love faces numerous obstacles. Her brother and his best friend are the leaders of rival gangs that refuse to let them be together. The world also tries to keep them apart due to its racism as they come from different cultures. When they try to rise above these problems, they get dragged back down and crash to a hideous reality. This is West Side Story based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It is currently playing at Springfield Little Theatre.
It isn’t often that I find myself tongue-tied when I start to write a review, but I am still in a state of glorious shock at what I just saw. Prior to tonight, I had never seen West Side Story in any capacity though I had read that the original mounting of the show revolutionized what could be done with choreography. While I have no real comment to make on that, I can say that SLT’s take on this show completely revolutionized what I considered possible with musical theatre. This was, by far, the single best musical I have seen mounted on any community theatre stage.
Lorianne Dunn does double duty as both director and choreographer and excels in both aspects. As director, she has put together an absolute masterpiece of a production. Her direction is certain as she expertly maneuvers her actors through the emotional beats of the stories and songs and leads them to sterling performances. Her staging is impeccable. It makes full use of the performance space and none of her actors upstaged themselves or others.
Her choreography is genius. Never have I seen such lavish dance numbers especially standouts such as “America”, the prologue, and “The Rumble”. Her work is all the more impressive given the youth of her cast who absolutely nail their performances with a polish and poise that experienced veterans would envy.
This cast is just amazing. Their energy (and fitness levels) was off the charts. They were clearly having fun and that added further fuel to nearly flawless performances. The chorus remained in each and every moment adding vital life and reality to this staged world. Exceptional supporting performances were supplied by Richard Bogue as the racist and thuggish Lt. Schrank; Lysander Abadia as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks; Robert Hazlette as the always angry Action and he also gets the lead on the night’s funniest number, “Gee, Officer Krupke”; and Miriam Stein as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend. Ms Stein especially shines with a velvet lower soprano in “America” and “A Boy Like That”.
Asa Charles Leininger stuns as Riff, the leader of the Jets. Leininger makes Riff far more than a brainless brute with his multilayered take on the character. His Riff started the Jets to have a sense of belonging. He’s proud of his gang because of the support they provide. He’s tough. He’s loyal, remaining friends with Tony despite his walking away from the gang. His Riff even has a code of honor as he’s willing to settle his issues with the Sharks with one fistfight. He even has some common sense as he refuses to react to those that call him and his gang hoodlums and prefers to stay cool. Leininger’s New York accent is spot on and he retains it as his lower tenor entertains us with “Jet Song” and “Cool”.
Tanner Johnson is scary smooth as Tony. Johnson takes the audience by the hand and gracefully leads it through Tony’s emotional journey. He’s got the perfect personality for the likable Tony who is trying to escape his former world of violence by holding down a job and finding love. You will be swept along with him as he experiences the highs of love, the horror at his violent actions when he gets dragged back into the gang world, and his heartbreak when he thinks he has lost Maria.
Johnson also has a gorgeous tenor voice. More importantly, he knows how to act through the songs, striking each emotional beat with unerring accuracy. Some of his best moments were his joyous “Maria” and his beautiful take on “Somewhere”.
Genevieve Fulks is a powerhouse of talent and will steal your hearts as Maria. She has such innocence and sweetness in the role and you can believe she has the power to evolve Tony into a better person. But she just as easily handles anger and pain when her world begins to fall apart due to the lifestyle of violence lived by her loved ones. And, my word, what a heavenly voice she has. Ms Fulks’ operatic soprano gave a performance for the angels with showstopping turns in “I Feel Pretty”, “I Have Love”, and “Tonight”.
Susan Gravatt and her orchestra perfectly play the score of this musical. John R. “Chuck” Rogers has designed a magnificent set of fences, crumbling tenements, and fire escapes. Jamie Bowers’ lights and sounds enhance the story. Kris Haik and Ginny Herfkens are winners with their precise costuming with the t-shirts, jackets, and jeans of the gangs and the elegant dresses for the ladies.
As I said earlier, this is the best community theatre musical I have ever seen staged in nearly a quarter century of theatre involvement. I have seen professional productions that couldn’t hold a stick to this show. It’s just a blitzkrieg of perfection from the fantastic story to grade A direction to stunning choreography to flawless acting and entrancing singing. If you love theatre and live in or near the Springfield, MO area, buy a ticket to see this show. You will be blown away.
West Side Story plays at Springfield Little Theatre through Feb 4. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets range from $16-$36. For tickets visit http://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org or call the Box Office at 417-869-1334. Parental discretion is advised for coarse language and gestures and some scenes of violence. Springfield Little Theatre is located at 311 E Walnut St in Springfield, MO.