REVIEW — They say location is everything, and that is certainly true of St. George Musical Theater’s production of “West Side Story.” Performed in the historic St. George Opera House, 212 N. Main St. in St. George — the musical theater’s permanent home — the intimate theater-in-the-round staging puts the audience so close to the hilarious, fast-paced and emotional action that one cannot help but feel like they are part of the story.
“West Side Story” is a modern and musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the iconic tragedy of feuding families and star-crossed lovers, set not in the fair city of Verona but in New York City where two rival gangs, the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, are fighting to claim dominion over the streets.
The star-crossed lovers come in the form of Tony, a former Jet and best friend of the gang’s current leader, Riff; and Maria, the younger sister of the Shark’s leader, Bernardo.
Music for “West Side Story” was originally written by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and conception and choreography by Jerome Robbins.
I attended St. George Musical Theater’s production and took my seat with equal parts excitement and trepidation — it is not every show you go to that volunteers walk around asking if you want Kleenex — but, spoiler alert, you do, you really do.
From the moment the lights dimmed and the music cued, the 360-degree stage was filled with the fast-paced and emotionally charged action of the youthful cast brilliantly selected by director Debe Jacobs.
When a show such as “West Side Story” takes on themes of racial tensions, turf wars and illicit love, it is easy for the audience to expect a grown-up cast to tackle the difficult roles and, to be honest, the youthfulness of this cast was a little off-putting at first and I found myself questioning whether these boys were really tough enough to be in a gang.
The answer may be debatable, but in the end, I found their age to also be what made this show so tragic and the emotions so real. Jacobs took a risk, and I think it paid off.
As tension between the Jets and the Sharks comes to a head, the Jets decide they need to hold a war council with the Sharks and call for a rumble, a dual over territory with the winner gaining control of the street.
Riff (Connor Lee) seeks the aid of his best friend Tony (Jadon Webster) to be his second in command. Tony, having left the Jets and feeling the pull of something bigger, is a reluctant participant but agrees to attend the dance where the invitation to council is to take place.
When the gang members aren’t feuding, they are off to the dance in “neutral territory” and that is where our lovers meet for the first time.
The dance is also where the choreography chops of Alyce Gardner and Shellie Thomas really start to shine, as nearly the whole cast fills the performance space in a dance-off to end all dance-offs. The space is small and yet it never felt cramped as they mamboed across the floor in an intricate pattern.
The stellar choreography also comes into play during the performance of “Cool” which, in my opinion, pays perfect homage to Jerome Robbins’ brilliance and yet retains its originality.
But back to the dance. When Tony and Maria (Alexa Garcia) meet for the first time, sparks fly in more ways than one. Their love-at-first-sight tryst does nothing to quell the budding hatred between the two gangs, and thus Maria is sent home while the the rivals make plans to discuss their rumble.
At this point, a forbidden love affair starts, and Webster and Garcia exquisitely navigate the world of young love with all the innocence and eagerness it deserves. Plus, they can sing, boy can they sing.
Leonard Bernstein’s score is not for the faint of heart, especially where the two leads are concerned, but not one note was out of place as the two actors gave voice to their doomed love story.
Of course the show is not without its funny moments. The cast’s rendition of “Officer Krupke” is laugh-out-loud funny and Dr. Kelly Olson, who I have it on good authority is a terrible dentist (not really) and a brilliant actor (yes really), gives a memorable performance as Glad Hand as he tries to convince the two gangs to make nice at the dance.
With nothing but respect for the entire cast, I have to take a moment to sing the praises of Tazia Murie who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. Murie gives all the spunk and charisma that Anita’s character calls for, and yet adds some pretty significant weight to the story.
Watch for her late in the production where she absolutely steals the scene in Doc’s drugstore.
If you are unfamiliar with “West Side Story,” things don’t go so well for Tony and Maria and the feuding gangs when an attempt to stop the rumble goes terribly awry setting off a chain of events that leads to the gut-wrenching conclusion of the show.
It is here, in the end, where the intimate setting really creates the feeling that you are experiencing rather than watching this story unfold, and you will probably be reaching for that Kleenex.
“West Side Story” runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday at 7:30 p.m. The final performance will take place Sept. 18.
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- What: St. George Musical Theater’s production of “West Side Story”
- When: Aug. 13- Sept. 18 | Thursday-Saturday and Monday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: St. George Opera House, 212 N. Main St., St. George
- Cost: $17-$21
- St. George Musical Theater | website
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