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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

West Side Story
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule


Jessie Jo Pauley and Drake Sherman
Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw / Hale Centre Theatre
Racial tension, murder, frayed emotions, police brutality, grief, hatred and senseless acts of violence—those are all things that America has unfortunately endured this past week due to the unfortunate deaths of several individuals and police officers. They also are many of the factors at the core of the classic musical West Side Story. This quintessential American musical is clearly still as relevant today as it was when it first appeared on Broadway almost sixty years ago. With an outstanding cast and exceptional direction, Hale Centre Theatre's production is one of the best versions of this timeless story that I've ever seen.

West Side Story has the perfect combination of drama, music and dance and contains some of the most well-known theatre songs. Written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, it 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 their home turf, the star-crossed lovers, former Jet Tony and Maria, sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, are caught in the middle. With themes of loyalty, friendship, and dedication to family and one's heritage, West Side Story is an emotionally moving piece of theatre, especially in how it demonstrates how the love between Tony and Maria helps them overcome their differences, despite the feuding that is constantly surrounding them.

There isn't one bad song in the score, including the soaring ballads "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." Bernstein's intricate, lush and pulsing music and Sondheim's clear but clever lyrics build on the character development and plot, and even the dream ballet of "Somewhere" is perfectly placed at the height of the tension and contributes some beauty into the ugliness we've just experienced. The music and lyrics perfectly complement each other, with Bernstein and Sondheim writing at the top of their game.

Director and choreographer Cambrian James is also working at the top of his game. He infuses the production with electricity in the high-flying dance sequences but also establishes a clear sense of purity and intimacy in the emotionally-charged dramatic moments. It helps that he has a cast of actors who are close to the ages the characters are supposed to be, so there aren't any thirty-year-olds portraying teenagers. The entire cast also doesn't make one false move, creating believable characters, delivering the songs with energy, and performing the abundant, intricate dance steps with a relative ease.

Drake Sherman and Jessie Jo Pauley are stunning as Tony and Maria. They immediately form a realistic couple and the joy and excitement they bring to the roles, and the intense affection these characters have for each other, are excellently represented. They both also deliver soaring vocals, with Sherman's delivery of his lyrics filled with realism, emotion and thought, and Pauley's voice clear and pure, hitting higher and higher notes as it goes. You will instantly fall in love with both of them and feel the heartbreak their characters encounter.

Both Vinny Chavez and Zoe Zamora are full of fire as Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita. Zamora is superb in portraying this raw, gutsy, and spirited yet nuanced woman. Their delivery of "America" is a knock-out, while Zamora and Pauley's duet of "A Boy Like That" is heartbreaking. Chavez evokes a strong Bernardo, with a natural ease in his delivery, yet we clearly see the love that he has for both Anita and Maria. Kale Burr is Riff, the leader of the Jets. This is a character full of anger, an urgency, and a sense of reckless abandonment. Burr is delivering the best portrayal of this pent-up young man that I've ever seen, hitting every single note flawlessly.

As the two older characters in the show, Wayne Peck and Matthew Harris bring an appropriate sense of common sense and responsibility, even if Harris' overreaching and destructive Officer Krupke (combined with the part of Lieutenant Schrank for this production) is more bigoted than anyone else in the cast. They two actors do not allow their roles to turn into caricature. In smaller parts, Summer Farnsworth is touching as Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a member of the Jets, and Brandon Reyes makes Chino unique and a character you care about.

James' choreography includes some of Jerome Robbins' original signature moves plus plenty of original steps that are incorporated flawlessly and danced with heightened energy by the entire cast. The in-the-round stage and intimate space allow for an immediacy and connection between the audience and the cast that can't be achieved in a larger space. Jeff Davis' lighting is always superb and this is his best design work I've seen. The lighting, including the superb changes between scenes, are almost cinematic with both the transition into and the lighting during the "Dance at the Gym" and the entire "Somewhere" ballet sequence breathtaking. Mary Atkinson's costumes are period and character specific, with some sensational '50s style dresses for the girls. Lincoln Wright's musical direction achieves some lovely and lush vocals from the cast.

West Side Story isn't just a classic musical that entertains but one that also speaks to society's racial issues with an intelligent and thought-provoking simple message of acceptance and tolerance. The book and score are among the most moving and significant in musical theatre history and include a message that is timely and timeless. Hale Centre Theatre's production is outstanding and filled with realism and a poignancy delivered exceptionally by a superb cast under Cambrian James' excellent direction. It is a good reminder of the struggles that many people still face but also full of hope of the love and strength that is still possible in the world.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of West Side Story runs through August 20th, 2016, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181

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
Directed and Choreographed by Cambrian James
Music Director: Lincoln Wright
Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Costume Designer: Mary Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Jeff A. Davis
Wigs & Make-Up: Cambrian James
Props: Monica Christiansen & McKenna Carpenter
Sound Design: Justin Peterson

Cast:
Drake Sherman: Tony
Jessie Jo Pauley: Maria
Kale Burr : Riff
Vinny Chavez: Bernardo
Zoe Zamora: Anita
Zachary Anvik: Action
Dale Mortensen: A-Rab
Brandon Brown: Baby John
Nathan Dutson: Snowboy
Joshua Lindblom: Big Deal
Summer Farnsworth: Anybodys
Ashley Harkey: Graziella
Jillian Smith: Velma
Brandon Reyes: Chino
Alex Partida: Pepe
Tuni Hernandez-Elenes: Indio
Jeremy Cruz: Anxious
Sedona Urias-Ramonett: Rosalia
Anissa Griego: Consuela
Tatum Weight: Teresita
Jacqueline Brecker: Francisca
Wayne Peck: Doc/Glad Hand
Matthew Harris: Officer Krupke


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