Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre follows its multiple Scenie-winning In The Heights with that show’s half-century-earlier predecessor, the one that started it all, West Side Story, and like ITH, WSS is one of Candlelight’s finest productions to date.
As any Broadway buff will tell you, there’s Broadway pre-West Side Story, and everything else since then.
Back in 1957 when West Side Story first debuted, recent Tony-winners included My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game, fun and sunny fare compared to a musical whose 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.
How must mid-20th Century Broadway audiences have felt 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?
This updated R & J on the mean streets of New York City may seem tame compared to the gang warfare flashed on today’s TV screens, but its tragic tale of star-crossed lovers remains as powerful as ever in 2015, a story played out daily whether by rival gangs in America’s inner cities or by Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East or by Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the love which ignites between born-in-the-USA Tony and recent Puerto Rican émigré Maria one fateful night at a high school gymnasium—only to be extinguished just a day later on the West Side streets of Manhattan.
Hector Guererro follows a series of stellar choreographic and performance assignments with a thrilling directorial debut (in addition to recreating Robbins’ iconic choreography), eliciting one outstanding, minutely delineated performance after another from an all-around splendid cast.
Ayme Olivo is pure perfection as Maria, combining innocence and fire and glorious vocal chops, and Candlelight favorite Jarred Barnard gives a star-making lead performance as Tony, a mix of boy-next-door charm, leading man charisma, and a tenor to match Olivo’s soprano.
Matinee idol-handsome Juan Caballer’s dynamic star turn as Bernardo portends big things ahead for Spain’s gift to Southern California music theater, and his Anita is the spitfirerrific Celeste Lanuza, who brings the house down with her “A Boy Next Door,” then digs deep into her dramatic reservoir for “the scene at Doc’s.”
Rising SoCal triple-threat Chaz Feuerstine is an electric stage presence as Riff, making “Cool” every bit the show-stopper it’s supposed to be, and he gets sensational support from fellow Jets Josh Switzer (Action), Adam Trent (A-rab), Tad Fujioka (Baby John), and Michael Milligan (Big Deal), plus Lacey Beegun as Jet wannabe Anybodys, the latter five’s “Hey Officer Krupke” providing some much needed Act Two comic relief. (Kudos to director Guerrero for including Anybodys in the usual male quartet.)
Equally sensacional are Sharks Michael Gonzalez (Chino), Rodrigo Varandas (Pepe), Chad Takeda (Indio), and Marcos Alexander (Luis); Jet Girls Jennifer Simpson (Graziella), April Lovejoy (Velma), and Erin Umphenour (Minnie);
and Shark girls Rosalia (Emily Dauwalder), Carly Cannata (Consuelo), and Kelsey Milligan (Francisca), the Sharkettes getting their own spotlight moment backing up Lanuza’s Anita in “America.” (Later, Dauwalder’s Rosalia shows off lovely soprano pipes in “Somewhere.”)
Jamey Snyder gives us an especially deeply felt Doc, while John Lynd and Jim Marbury are appropriately authoritative as Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke. Danny Bride would be even better as Gladhand if he took the cartoonish dance organizer down a notch.
Though it’s Leonard Bernstein’s melodies and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics that are most likely to strike a recognition chord in most theatergoers’ minds, it is Jerome Robbins’ now legendary choreography that makes the strongest impression at Candlelight thanks to Guerrero’s pitch-perfect recreation of those signature West Side Story moves and his handpicked dance ensemble leaping across the stage with such natural grace and athleticism that it’s often hard tell where real life street moves end and dancing begins.
From finger snaps to 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 graceful moves of the “Somewhere” ballet, and Guerrero and company nail them all.
In fact about the only thing that separates Candlelight’s production from something you’d see at our highest-budget regional theaters are its prerecorded background tracks and some occasionally flimsy scrims in scenic designer Mitch Gill’s otherwise excellent sets.
Douglas Austin scores high marks for his musical direction as does Jonathan Daroca of StreetLight LLC for his lighting design. Costumes (provided by The Theatre Company and coordinated by Merrill Grady) are as good as it gets, with special snaps for color choices that allow us instantly to separate the Jets from the Sharks.
Ensemble member Simpson is dance captain. Daniel Moorefield is stage manager.
Diversity has been the word at Candlelight these past six months with productions of Evita, Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, In The Heights, and now West Side Story providing plenty of opportunities to underrepresented performers of color, and bravo for that.
Whether you’ve seen West Side Story umpteen times, or this is your first time experiencing this 20th-century classic, Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre’s WSS is for you. Hardly looking or sounding its age at fifty-eight, it remains one of Broadway’s greatest musicals ever. Check it out at Candlelight and you’ll see why.
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.
October 18, 2105
Photos: Demetrios Katsantonis