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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

West Side Story
Valley Youth Theatre


Megan Farinella and Sedona Urias-Ramonett
If you were to make a list of quintessential American musicals, West Side Story would have to be toward the top of the list. With the perfect combination of drama, music and dance, and containing some of the most well-known theatre songs, West Side Story is a true classic with a message that still rings true more than fifty five years after it first premiered. The superb Valley Youth Theatre production of the show that opened this past weekend has an extremely gifted cast of high school and college aged actors. With almost every character in the show played by teenagers, the relevant age of the cast adds a realistic, poignant edge that you just don't get from productions that use actors in their 30s to portray these young, iconic characters. With excellent direction, outstanding creative elements and a sublime cast, this is a must see production.

Written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is a modern updating of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Set in 1950s New York City, the musical changes Shakespeare's two feuding families into two rival gangs, one white, the Jets, and one Puerto Rican, the Sharks. With both gangs fighting for home turf, the star-crossed lovers, the former Jet Tony and Maria, sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, get caught in the middle. With themes of loyalty, friendship and dedication to family and one's heritage, West Side Story is a moving piece of theatre, especially as it demonstrates how Tony and Maria's love helps them overcome their differences, despite all the feuding that is constantly surrounding them.

With ballads like "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming," the comical numbers "I Feel Pretty" and "Officer Krupke," the heavy dance sequences "Cool" and "America," and the lovely duets "A Boy Like That" and "Tonight," there isn't one bad song in the score. These songs are classics in the truest sense of the word. Each musical number adds to the character development and plot, and the dream ballet of "Somewhere" is perfectly placed at the height of the tension, adding beauty to the ugliness we've just experienced. Bernstein and Sondheim's music and lyrics perfectly complement each other, with each writer at the top of his game.

The cast for the Valley Youth Theatre production is simply top notch, all of them gifted actors as well as singers, and almost all of them able to deliver the abundant choreography with ease. Mike Sprenger as Tony has a clear and pure voice that serves his numerous ballads perfectly. His delivery of both "Something's Coming" and "Maria" are touching and genuine. Sedona Urias-Ramonett has the requisite young innocent looks as Maria, but she also naturally shows the yearning underneath. She has a soaring, lilting voice that is put to great use throughout the show. Sprenger and Urias-Ramonett's many scenes and songs together are tender and engaging with both actors extremely realistic in their portrayals of these two young lovers.

The feisty character of Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, is almost always the highlight of this musical, and Megan Farinella is excellent in the part. She scored as "Rosie" in the recent Desert Stages Theatre production of Bye Bye Birdie and is even more effective here. She brings a raw, nuanced naturalness to her portrayal, with her gutsy, spirited delivery of "America" a major highlight of the production. Her acting is just as engaging and her voice easily delivers the complex Sondheim lyrics. Her duet of "A Boy Like That" with Urias-Ramonett is perfect.

In the supporting parts, Jonathan Ramirez as Bernardo and Michael Schulz as Riff are both effective in delivering the pent-up energy and anger required for the leaders of the two rival gangs. They are both gifted actors and singers and manage to dance the intricate steps with ease. Ramirez also brandishes a switchblade in the rumble scene with a heightened sense of agility. With an extremely large cast of over forty people, there are far too many people to mention, but Connor Baker's Action, Brandon Brown's Baby John and Noah Guzman's Chino are all unique and terrific in their portrayals. Also, Ally Lansdowne brings a nice level of spirit and distinctiveness to Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a member of the Jets. Her delivery of the opening part of "Somewhere" is especially touching. As the three adults in the cast, Peter Hart, Mitch Etter and Kevin Ohlfest as Doc, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, don't let their years of experience overshadow their scenes with the younger cast members.

Director Bobb Cooper doesn't make a single misstep in getting his large cast to achieve the emotions and comical moments required in the dialogue and lyrics. He keeps the show moving at a fast clip but appropriately lets the emotional final scene play out at a slow enough pace to allow the scene be even more impactful. He also never makes the stage seem over crowded, which can't be easy with such a large cast, and constantly keeps his actors in motion. His direction of the rumble scene is complex, nerve racking and action packed.

Just about every member of the large cast is required to dance. Choreographers Katie Casey and Lucas Coatney must have spent many hours drilling their dancers in the nuances of Jerome Robbins' original iconic and intricate choreography. With just a few small exceptions, the cast is almost always in sync and the opening number and the "Dance at the Gym" sequence are red hot with a heightened sense of energy. This production's dream ballet of "Somewhere" is one of the most moving versions of this number I've ever seen.

While the scenery wasn't designed specifically for this production, rented instead from the Fullerton Civic Light Opera Music Theatre, it shows how renting sets and drops from a fellow professional theatre company can greatly enhance a production. With a series of large drops and set pieces, including garbage cans, scaffolding, large fence pieces and fire escapes, the scenic design successfully portrays the many locations in 1957 Manhattan. I really like the use of forced perspective on the drops that are effective in portraying various places, including the underside of the freeway during the rumble scene and a large New York street filled with apartment buildings, stores and billboards. Lighting by Mike Eddy is evocative with a lovely use of shadows, dark blues, purples and reds to paint the many scenes. Costumes by Karol Cooper provide a brilliant and varied color palette, with the dresses for the women, especially the bright red ones for Anita, a mix of fabrics and patterns. Sound design by Clearwing is extremely vibrant, with the large cast perfectly mic'd and not a single line of dialogue or lyric missed. Music director Mark Fearey does an excellent job conducting the twenty-two piece orchestra.

It's been a few years since I saw a production of West Side Story and seeing a top notch production like this one reminds me again how brilliant a show this is. Sure, maybe our young lovers fall in love a little too quickly and when one character dies their sibling doesn't seem to mourn them for too long. But those slightly unrealistic moments detract very little from the intelligent and thought provoking simple message of acceptance and tolerance at the core of Arthur Laurent's book. With one of the most moving and significant scores in musical theatre history, the message is timely and timeless. The young talented cast adding an additional layer of relevance, the Valley Youth Theatre production of West Side Story is extremely poignant and highly recommended.

The Valley Youth Theatre production of West Side Story runs through August 24th, 2014, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or at www.herbergertheater.org/calendar/west-side-story/. For information on VYT's upcoming season, visit www.vyt.com.

Based on a Concept by Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins
Director: Bobb Cooper
Production Stage Manager: Kelsey Hillman
Scenery Provided by FCLO Music Theatre
Costume Designer: Karol Cooper
Lighting Designer: Mike Eddy
Music Director: Mark Fearey
Choreographers: Katie Casey & Lucas Coatney
Sound Design: Clearwing

Cast
Officer Krupke: Kevin Ohlfest
Lieutenant Schrank: Peter Hart
Glad Hand: Manny Quijada
Doc: Mitch Etter

Jets
Tony: Mike Sprenger
Riff: Michael Schulz
A-Rab: Jacob Browning
Action: Connor Baker
Baby John: Brandon Brown
Big Deal: Wil Arends
Diesel: Stephen Glass
Gee-Tar: Griffin Siroky
Mouthpiece: Adam Hays
Snowboy: Vincent Pugliese
Anybodys: Ally Lansdowne
Clarice: Jessie Jo Pauley
Graziella: Devaune Bohall
Minnie: Caroline Wells
Nannette: Carly Mcclain
Pauline: Liz Grannis
Susie: Isabella Conner
Velma: Elyssa Blonder

Sharks
Maria: Sedona Urias-Ramonett
Anita: Megan Farinella
Bernardo: Jonathan Ramirez
Chino: Noah Guzman
Anxious: Mason Reeves
Indio: Ralphael Brown
Juano: Philip Amerine
Luis: Brian Carmona
Moose: Alberto Flores
Nibbles: Clay Rollon
Pepe: Brandon Reyes
Toro: Alex Partida
Consuela: Zoe Zamora
Estella: Ayanna Conway
Francisca: Payton Bioletto
Margarita: Karlie O'Hearn
Rosalia: Sophia Deyden
Teresita: Mariella Deangelis


Photo: Barry Smith

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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