Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
It would be hard to find someone who has not seen a production or two of West Side Storyfrom high school productions to national tours, some good and some not so good. The Wick chose this show because of the results of a customer survey they offered to patrons asking them what they most wanted to see. The most requested musical was West Side Story.
With a well written book, beautiful music, and iconic choreography Jerome Robbins, it's not hard to see why. Robbins translated the passion, tension, fury and joy of inner-city gang members into dance in a way that touched audiences. In addition to all of this, the social commentary of the plot is timely in a country where racial issues continue to divide us long after the 1950s have passed. Whatever the reasons for requesting the show, the audience surely can't be disappointed in this well-acted production.
Though Mary Joanna Grisso looks and sings the part of Maria beautifully, it is her acting that makes her special in this role. Most Marias don't venture far beyond establishing the naïve nature of the character as she goes from in love to heartbroken. Grisso provides Maria with a sense of humor, and a playfulness with her friends and Tony. She comes across as genuine and comfortable, allowing the moments to change her organically as they happen. While many actresses set out to grab Maria's moments, she sets out simply to be Maria, and by doing this she achieves far more. I have seen West Side Story probably a dozen times on stage, and Grisso acts the role of Maria better than anyone I've previously seen.
Thaddeus Pearson is wonderful as Tony. His acting and singing work with Grisso is outstanding in its timing and balance. His sensitive singing of the role is a revelation. He captures every nuance of musical dynamics so often glossed over. In listening to him I found myself more than once thinking "Oh yeah, that is how that line is supposed to be sung." I'd nearly forgotten, as I haven't heard someone sing it so attentively for so long. His only flaw is not being as believable as Tony the gang member as he is as Tony the young lover.
As Riff, Jeff Smith has the perfect rough but likeable edge. While his singing voice is also a bit rough around the edges, it matches up with the feel for the role. Sydney Mae Ruf-Wong is engaging as a fiery Anita, and demonstrates some admirable dance skills. Pasqualino Beltempo is not quite as strong as Bernardo, needing to go for a more polished and commanding presence. I loved Cliff Burgess as the palpably slimy and manipulative Lt. Schrank. He is the representation of the racial conflict at hand for the two gangs, and knowingly exacerbates the events of the fateful night. The catalyst this character can be is so often overlooked, but Burgess wrings the meaning from each line as his character plays a high stakes cat and mouse game with the gang members.
The scene work bears signs of strong direction and pacing, with an eye for humor when called for, and the Wick is up to its usual high standards in production values with sets, lights, costumes and sound. As for the dancing, one of the stars of West Side Story is the brilliant choreography of Jerome Robbins. Much of it is faithfully recreated in this production and well executed by the cast of dancers. There is some unexpected unevenness, however, as it appears that the Jets inexplicably dance better than the Sharks. While the production makes use of color blind casting, it doesn't quite come off cleanly. Before we meet any of the characters, the opening scene features members of both gangs getting into various skirmishes. With some of the Jets being as dark as the Sharks, and a few of the Sharks (or rather people we later learn are Sharks) being black, the audience doesn't know who is who. Strong costuming color choices could've helped with differentiation. At the dance, the Sharks are all dressed in blacks with red, fuchsias and vibrant pinks, while the Jets are in browns, greens, yellows and blues. I know this is harder to translate into streetwear, but the audience really needs something to help them know which gang is which at the top of the show.
With strong performances by Pearson (Tony) and Grisso (Maria), beautiful music and some exceptionally good acting, this poignant performance of West Side Story at The Wick Theatre is a solid must see!
The original Broadway production of West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957. The production ran for 732 performances, and received Tony Awards for scenic design and choreography. After touring it then returned to the Winter Garden Theatre in 1960 for another 253 performances. In 1961 the musical was turned into a film that won 10 Academy Awards.
This production of West Side Story will be appearing through February 26, 2017 at The Wick Theatre & Costume Museum, 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton, Florida. For more information, you may contact them by phone at 561-955-2333, 561-955-2333 or visit online at www.thewick.org.
*Indicates a member of Actor's Equity Association