Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 1950s New York City, the creators updated Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by making Shakespeare's two feuding families into two rival gangs, one white, the Jets, and one Puerto Rican, the Sharks. As both gangs continually fight for their home turf, star crossed lovers Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, get caught in the middle.
Laurents' book is superb as it interweaves themes of loyalty, friendship, dedication to family, and staying true to one's heritage. Bernstein and Sondheim's score features some of the most instantly recognizable showtunes, from the ballads "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming" to the romantic "Maria" and "Tonight," the heavy dance numbers "Cool" and "America," and the comical numbers "I Feel Pretty" and "Officer Krupke." The songs add to the development of the characters, fleshing out their feelings and thoughts, while they also propel the story. Even the dream ballet "Somewhere" breaths beauty into the ugliness that has come before it and is placed at the perfect point in the show, just as the tensions have gotten high.
Even though not every member has the greatest singing voice, GCU's cast is quite good and the sheer size of the almost 40-member group adds a level of magnitude that you don't get from most productions. Preston MacDonald and Madison Cichon make a cute, realistic couple as Tony and Maria. They both have lovely voices that fit well in their many songs. Cichon evokes the innocence that Maria requires while MacDonald instills Tony with a genuine sense of the young boy who is yearning and learning to be a man. The two also stimulate plenty of sparks in their many romantic moments.
Tarnim Bybee is perfect as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. She is feisty and firm, yet also elicits a strong sense of care for Maria and Tony. Bybee is engaging and natural, not just in her acting and singing but also in her dancing. Her delivery of "America" is superb, filled with a spirited and gutsy energy, and her duet with Cichon of "A Boy Like That / I Have a Love" is raw and heartbreaking.
As Riff, the leader of the Jets, Chesney Thompson projects leadership abilities and evokes so much pent up energy and anger that it's easy to see why he and the rest of his gang are always on edge. As Bernardo, Javaughn Iversen has a strong, steady demeanor, which, while still full of fear and pent up energy, creates a nice counterbalance to Thompson. The rest of the cast do well in echoing the energetic pace and fearful, angry tone of Thompson and Iversen.
Director Claude Pensis does very good work, ensuring that the actors deliver unique portrayals full of both emotion and humor. He adds some nice touches throughout, my favorite being the quick coda at the end, after all of the death and despair has unfolded. He has just the adult characters remain on stage, looking in despair and disbelief and completely guilty, showing them to be partly, if not entirely, to blame for what has happened before. This adds an entirely new and dynamic layer to the story. Pensis also has come up with a creative design for the show unlike any I've seen before. He has stripped the Ethington Theatre space bare to the back walls and added a large, moveable set piece with a raised billboard, several street signs, a large street lamp, and a basketball hoop. This clean look from William H. Symington projects a feeling of timelessness and, since it isn't specific to New York City, also a sense of Anytown, USA. While that decision works well, the use of that elevated billboard to represent both the balcony and interior of Maria's bedroom is a bit of a stretch, especially since those scenes play out with the large billboard still in view. It still works, but might be somewhat confusing to those who have never seen this show before, as it makes it seem that Maria lives on the streets, or at least on the walkway outside the billboard. Fortunately, there isn't any misstep in Nola Yergen's exquisite costumes or Pensis' exceptional lighting.
Susannah Keita has restaged Robbins' choreography expertly and almost all of the cast are able to deliver the abundant choreography with ease. Seeing these well-known moves danced by such a large cast is a joyful experience. Musical director Mark Fearey does very good work, not only with the large cast but with the fairly large orchestra. The only issue I had with the music was that at the performance I attended the microphone levels for the orchestra were off, with Feary's piano slightly higher than the rest of the musicians, which made it seems at points like it was a piano only accompaniment.
While GCU's production of West Side Story is very good, the bad news is that all performances sold out well in advance of opening night. Fortunately, there is a cancellation line that forms about 30 minutes before show time.
West Side Story performs at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre through April 9th, 2017. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at www.gcu.edu/Upcoming-Events/The-Arts.php or by calling 602-639-8880.
Director: Claude Pensis