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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

West Side Story
Phoenix Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Boeing Boeing


James D. Gish and Joy Del Valle
Photo by Reg Madison Photography
As a testament to the enormous popularity of the musical West Side Story, Phoenix Theatre's solid production of this beloved show is the sixth I've seen in the Valley in the last four years. And I'm sure there have been other theatre companies and schools in town who also presented this musical in that time period. West Side Story, which updates Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by setting it in 1950s New York City and pitting rival street gangs against each other, is receiving a strong and forceful production from Phoenix Theatre with enormously moving performances by Joy Del Valle and James D. Gish as Maria and Tony, the star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of a turf war.

The creation of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, bookwriter Arthur Laurents, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, all working at the top of their game with this musical, West Side Story has the perfect combination of drama, music and dance. It also contains some of the most well-known theatre songs, including "Somewhere," "Tonight," "America," and "I Feel Pretty." With one of the most moving and significant scores in musical theatre, there isn't one bad song or errant scene in what is truly one of the top quintessential American musicals of the 20th century.

West Side Story changes Shakespeare's two feuding families to two rival gangs, the white gang the Jets and the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks. As both groups continually squabble in their fight for control of their home turf, the former Jet Tony and Maria, sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, get caught in the middle.

At the core of this musical is the simple idea that a love that is seemingly against all odds can transcend, overcome, bring together, and change perceived differences between two groups. But it also touches upon the importance of remaining loyal and dedicated to both your family and your heritage. In the divided country we live in, with so much talk about immigrants and people who are different, the themes of this musical that first premiered in 1957 are still relevant today.

Director Michael Barnard has a firm grasp on what is required to derive emotionally rich performances from his cast. While the majority are delivering bold performances that are infused with anger, Joy Del Valle and James D. Gish, as Maria and Tony, achieve a rich sense of hope and joy in their portrayals, contributing beauty into the ugliness around them. Both actors have amazingly clear and pure singing voices that deliver their numerous solo ballads and duets flawlessly. Their dialogue scenes are touching and genuine, with both beautifully portraying the tenderness, yearning and urgency within these two young lovers. They form an incredibly engaging and realistic couple. In past productions I've often found it almost laughable how these two characters can fall in love so quickly, but in Del Valle and Gish's nuances performances, it seems entirely understandable.

The highlight of almost any production of this show is the fierce, forceful and feisty character of Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, and Alyssa Chiarello is simply superb in the part. Infusing the role with a raw sense of vitality along with a huge dose of sex appeal, her gusty and natural delivery of every line and lyric rings true to this spirited woman. Chiarello's performance of "America" with Eddie Maldonado (a fine and strong Bernardo) is a major highlight, while her duet of "A Boy Like That" with Del Valle is perfectly sung and very moving.

In the supporting parts, Cameron Edris is fine as Riff, the leader of the Jets, while Logan Scott Mitchell as Action, Cole Newburg as Baby John, and Jonny Ramirez as Chino all contribute unique portrayals. Also, Riley Glick is spirited and spunky as Anybodys, the girl who wants to be a member of the Jets. As the three adult characters in the cast, Hal Adams, Terry Gadaire and Tony Blosser, as Doc, Lieutenant Schrank and Officer Krupke, respectively, do well to increase the tension. Adams and Gadaire are clearly playing archetypal characters who show as much hatred for those who aren't like them as the Sharks and the Jets do. Newburg and Karma Jenkins are the featured dancers in the "Somewhere" dream ballet and both instill the number with a refined sense of beauty.

Barnard's fast-paced direction brings a vibrancy and liveliness to the entire production. He ensures the musical sequences are rich and full of passion and the comical moments shine bright, yet also allows for an appropriate level of poignancy in the serious scenes. He also doesn't shy away from the pure ugliness of a violent moment in the second act set in Doc's drugstore. Alan Ruch's music direction achieves a beautiful and rich sound from the orchestra and cast. Choreographer Patti Colombo combines some original dance steps of her own with Jerome Robbins' original iconic and intricate choreography, which is all extremely well danced by the entire cast. Robert Kovach's expansive scenic design successfully portrays the many locations of 1957 Manhattan and a street filled with apartment buildings, stores and billboards. Daniel Davisson's lighting is evocative and lush, with the lovely use of deep colors and shadows heighten the emotional intensity of many scenes. The costumes from Cari Smith are composed of brilliant, bright and vibrant colors that are period perfect, as are Kelly Yurko's exceptional hair designs. Fight choreographer Pasha Yamotahari's staging of the rumble scene is complex, nerve racking, and action packed.

If I had to name one slight fault with this otherwise rich and moving production, it would be that every character except for Maria and Tony are full of so much anger that at times it almost threatens to overcome them. Even the character of Doc, who is the voice of reason and is nicely played by Gadaire, seems angry at the entire world around him.

West Side Story is a true classic as well as an emotionally moving piece of theatre with a timely and timeless message of tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness that still rings true, more than sixty years after it premiered. It's also fitting that in this centennial year of Bernstein's birth, Phoenix Theatre has chosen this show to open their season, since their 100th birthday is just a year away.

Phoenix Theatre's production of West Side Story runs through October 14, 2018, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151

Director/Musical Staging: Michael Barnard
Music Director: Alan Ruch
Original Choreographer: Jerome Robbins
Additional Choreography: Patti Colombo
Associate Choreographer: Logan Scott Mitchell
Scenic Designer: Robert Kovach
Costume Designer: Cari Smith
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Hair and Makeup Designer: Kelly Yurko
Properties Designer: Margot Glaser
Fight Choreographer: Pasha Yamotahari

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Shrank: Hal Adams
Consuelo: Shani Barrett
Indio: John Batchan
Diesel: Skyler Bean
Pauline: Elyssa Nicole Blonder
Krupke/Gladhand: Tony Blosser
Clarice: Abigail Cavanaugh
Anita: Alyssa Chiarello*
Luis: Lucas Coatney
Maria: Joy Del Valle
Riff: Cameron Edris*
Doc: Terry Gadaire
Francisca: Breanna Ghostone
Tony: James D. Gish*
Anybodys: Riley Glick
Teresita: Anissa Griego
Snowboy: Danny Hammond
Rosalia: Karma Jenkins*
Pepe: Edgar Lopez*
Minnie: Alexia Lorch
Anxious: Aidan Lutton
Bernardo: Eddie Maldonado
A-Rab: Brant Michaels*
Action: Logan Scott Mitchell*
Baby John: Cole Newburg
Chino: Jonny Ramirez
Big Deal: Alexander Richardson
Graziella: Audrey Sullivan
Velma: Sarah Wiechman

*Member, Actors' Equity Association

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.


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