As I sat watching West Side Story last night, amazingly my first time ever at a
professional stage production of this musical theater classic, I couldn’t help
thinking about what Broadway audiences must have felt as they first
discovered it back in 1957.  This was, after all, a Broadway whose most recent
Tony-winners were My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game. 
What must audiences who were accustomed to this fun and sunny fare have
thought about a show where the leading man and leading lady didn’t have
the proverbial happy ending, and whose characters lived dismal lives in the
worst parts of Manhattan and hated anyone whose differences threatened
their go-nowhere existences?

What must they have thought about Leonard Bernstein’s jazz and opera
inspired score, about Stephen Sondheim’s poetic lyrics, about Arthur Laurents’
Romeo and Juliet inspired book, and above all about Jerome Robbins’ truly
revolutionary choreography?  How must West Side Story have rocked the
world of these Eisenhower-era 1950s New Yorkers and, even more so, of the out-
of-towners who make up so much of a Broadway show’s audience?

I couldn’t help wondering this because even 50-plus years later, the show
continues to dazzle and move us with its beauty, its power, and its tragedy, in
a way that few other musicals in the past 50 years have even come close to

Given West Side Story’s history and reputation, and the high quality of recent
FCLO Music Theatre productions, my expectations for last night’s performance
were high. Fortunately, they were met and even exceeded in virtually every

First and foremost is Sha Newman’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’ original
direction and choreography.  (One of the interesting aspects of any West Side
Story production is that Robbins’ direction and choreography are part of the
package when a theater gets the rights to stage it.) Rather than being
constrained by an obligation to reproduce rather than create, Newman was
clearly inspired by the genius of the man behind some of the most
revolutionary choreography ever. What a joy it is to see the Jets and the
Sharks leap across the stage in Robbins’ signature moves.  In the grace and
athleticism of Robbins/Newman’s choreography, one can often not tell where
real life street moves end and dancing begins. From the finger snaps to the
knife fights, West Side Story’s choreography is truly one of a kind. Not only do
rival gangs do their dances of menace and death; there are also the mambo
beats of “Dance At The Gym,” the Latin foot stomps of “America,” and the
balletic moves of the Act 2 dream sequence, which thankfully has been left
here intact. Newman’s work is on a par with her sensational choreography for
last season’s Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and arguably even better.

Fortunately, Newman has been blessed with an ensemble of dancers more
than up to the task. The Jets (Luis Avila, Ben Gleichauf, Juan Guillen, and
Bobby Perino), the Sharks (Caesar F. Barajas, Oscar Gonzalez, Antonio
Matabang, TJ Murdy-Punchard, and dance captain Paul Romero, Jr.), the Jet
girls (Megan Dragon, Brittany Rose Hammond, Amy Lenhardt, and Karie
Seasock) and the Shark girls (Jenn Aedo, Ayesha Ayeni, Natalie Bou, Nickie
Gentry, and Courtenay Krieger) more than meet the challenge of the
choreographic demands, proving once again the Broadway-ready talent
base our CLOs have to choose from. That these dancers can accomplish in
three weeks of rehearsals what the original Broadway cast labored for months
on is nothing short of amazing.

The leading roles are equally well performed, beginning with the sensational
Marie Eberline as Anita. Eberline, fresh from two years touring with Wicked and
going on as Elphaba, commands the stage with her fire, passion, and powerful
acting, voice, and dance moves.  As the saying so aptly goes, whenever
Eberline is on stage, you can’t take your eyes off her.  With songs like “America”
and “A Boy Like That,” and Anita’s humiliation at the hands of the Jets in “The
Taunting,” no wonder this is a role that has won actresses nominations and
awards.  Don’t be surprised if Eberline finds herself among them.

Douglas Carpenter is as handsome a Tony as one could wish, and possessing a
voice few of our most popular leading men can rival, this newcomer is poised
for a lengthy and successful musical theater career. Maegan McConnell IS
Maria, from the way she makes you believe that she is truly a young girl of 15,
to the exquisite soprano she reveals in “I Feel Pretty” and “I Have A Love,” to
the rage she shows in her final, emotional confrontation with the rival gangs
who have killed her love. Carpenter and McConnell make beautiful music
together indeed, as they duet “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and
“Somewhere,” just three of the Bernstein/Sondheim compositions that
audiences leave the theater humming.

Mark A. Provart is a dynamic presence as Riff with his Sharks counterpart
played by a sizzling Elijah Reyes. Jeremy Lucas makes for a commanding
Action, and Patrick Loyd, Sam Berman, and DT Matias do first-rate work as      
A-Rab, Anybodys, and Chino.  All five are called upon to be triple-threats, a
task they are very much up to. Provart gets to perform two of Bernstein /
Sondheim’s jazziest numbers, “Jet Song” and “Cool.”  Lucky guy, as is Lucas
having great fun leading his fellow Jets in the much needed Act 2 comic relief
of “Gee, Officer Krukpe!”

Lee Kreter leads an almost unheard of 20-piece (!) pit orchestra, giving this
West Side Story an almost symphonic quality. Ed Gallagher’s scenic design is
first rate, proving again that regional theater can give National Tours a run for
their money in the technical as well as performance departments. Ditto for
Christina L. Munich’s lighting design, with special mention for the romantic
moments where, thanks to a huge mirror ball, the audience is surrounded by
whirling starlight.  A J Gonzalez deserves high marks for his sound design, but
somebody please find a way to remedy the distortion that sadly affects high
register voices in the Chapman Auditorium at what ought to be the most
soaring of moments, e.g. when Maria and Tony sing “Tonight,” or pretty much
any time a soprano hits those high notes.

Best of all among the design elements are Mela Hoyt-Heydon and Ambra
Wakefield’s costumes, especially those for the “Dance At The Gym,” with the
Jets all garbed in shades of blue and the Sharks in scarlet hues.  The costumes
are in a word sensational!

I only wish I had an opening in my schedule to see this production again.  After
never having seen West Side Story done professionally in all my years of
theatergoing, once is not enough.  Even 51 years after its Broadway premiere,
West Side Story remains one of the crowning gems of American musical
theater, and thankfully FCLO Music Theatre has mounted a production which
more than does it justice.

Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
February 21, 2008

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