“West Side Story” is about as timeless as a musical can get. A romantic score with classic songs, dreamy ballet sequences and a story about star-crossed lovers and their warring families. When you start stripping away some of the more traditional theatrical elements of the musical, like a bare-bones set and smaller orchestra, it forces the audience to sit in the discomfort and heartbreak of the story.
MusicalFare kicked off its 30th season with its relatively stripped-down production, utilizing their intimate space to expose the violence, racial tension and raw emotion that runs in the veins of this story. Chris Kelly directed the cast of 20, working with Victoria Pérez, co-founder and Artistic Director of Raíces Theatre Company, to ensure cultural authenticity throughout the show, including the movement and casting of the Sharks.
. . .Real and raw . . .
We’re immediately thrust into a high energy modern dance sequence to meet the Jets and the Sharks and their respective leaders, Riff (Matthew DeVita) and Bernardo (Alejandro Gabriél Gómez). The rising tension between the groups only escalates when Tony (Ricky Needham), a former Jet and Riff’s best friend, arrives at the local dance and only has eyes for the captivating Maria (Dominique Kempf), Bernardo’s sister.
Needham has the voice of an angel. He soars during “Maria,” singing with such delicious vibrato and strength at the top of his range that you’ll swoon in your seat and wish you were the Maria he’s singing about. His tenderness in certain moments with Kempf’s beautiful Maria was lovely, especially in their ballet duet leading into the “Somewhere” sequence.
Kempf shined as Maria, excelling most in expressing Maria’s naiveté as she tries to navigate new feelings of love for Tony amidst a world that wants to separate them.
Blaise Mercedes is the firecracker Anita – Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend. She commands the stage with a unbelievable spark, strutting in Kari Drozd’s best costumes in the show and showing off a sexy, powerful voice, which shines in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” and sends a chill down your spine when the Jets corner her in Doc’s store. The only flaw from opening night was her microphone, which went out during most of “America.” She nailed the performance visually, but backed by an otherwise welcome addition of percussive instruments to the orchestra, she was nearly impossible to hear.
The energetic young cast was full of standout characters, especially the hilarious Rheanna Gallego as Anybodys and the powerful Brendan Didio as Action. Bobby Cooke and Philip Farugia, the latter of which served as musical director, did well doubling as the adult characters in moments of levity and gravity.
Lynne Koscielniak’s set design did the limited space well, with a distressed brick alley and chain link fencing serving as every backdrop and bare dress mannequins and milk crates as various props and furniture. Chris Cavanagh’s lighting shined especially brightly on the set during the “Somewhere” sequence.
While some of the risks MusicalFare took with its season opener, like the set and some of the staging, paid off, others fell flat. There were a few times when the uneven numbers between the Jets and the Sharks members felt too unbalanced to go unnoticed (we’re talking 6-7 Jets vs. 4 Sharks at times). Additionally, with the exception of “America,” the small orchestra that MusicalFare audiences are accustomed to simply can’t live up to the full potential that Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score is known for. Additionally, while Nancy Hughes’ choreography, and Bobby Cooke’s additional choreography hits high notes in “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” I missed some of the more predictable dance choices that I expected from a show that is well-known for boys doing ballet in Converse sneakers.
All in all, MusicalFare’s “West Side Story” is raw and real. The vibrant and talented cast will surely entertain you; just don’t leave home without a tissue or two.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes including a 15 minute intermission
“West Side Story” runs through October 6 at MusicalDare Theatre in Amherst. For more information, click here.