Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Last year in the season opening slot, Manatee Players offered Newsies, featuring some of the strongest male dancing ever seen on a community theater stage in this area. Now, in fairness, Kerby had been polishing this talent pool over a number of years, so the results didn't come out of the blue. With so much dancing ability, including a fine group of women as well, at his command and so many of them wanting to work together on another project, West Side Story seemed a reasonable choice, especially with a Steven Spielberg movie in the works and an Ivo van Hove Broadway production also announced.
Is this production a success? Yes and no. The first act doesn't maintain the tension that should be in the air, like a low-grade bolt of lightening. The big dance pieces are just that, dances, not dramatic entities. "Dance at the Gym" doesn't hold together well, becoming more like a set of unconnected dances, "Cool" fails to explode, and "The Rumble" ignites but fizzles before it is supposed to. Things improve in act two, as "Somewhere" and the "Scherzo" dance sequence, which I have always believed is the emotional heart of the musical, makes the requisite effect, intensely moving, showing what might have been. From there forward, the drama never lets go, with Anita's taunting scene chilling in its intensity.
Austin Gresham is a baritenor Tony, his ear tuned to musicals more within reach of his life span. He fumbles rhythmically in several crucial spots. But dramatically and in much of the vocals he is a fine, youthful hero. Eliza Morehouse, coming off Annie Oakley and Marcy (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), has found a role that brings out the absolute best in her legitimately trained voice. The high notes are nicely in place without strain, and she also seems the right age. The two together make "One Hand, One Heart" a beautiful, calm moment in a propulsive act one.
Eliette Rogers is a capable Anita until she really catches fire in the taunting scene. "America" is well sung but the dance lacks fire. Aaron Castle, in his third go round as Riff, has the role utterly under control: fearless but incautious as a gangleader. Dancing and singing, he brings it all to the stage. If "Cool" is on the verge of exploding, it's because of him. Tay Marquise as Bernardo is creditable. In a bit of luxury casting, Sarah Cassidy as Rosalia guarantees that the solo soprano of "Somewhere" resonates. It is gorgeously done.
One advantage of a non-professional production is that both gangs will have a few more members than is likely even in a Broadway revival, and that extra oomph in the singing shows. Many local performers from past Manatee Players productions form the ensemble and the chemistry benefits.
Always one of Rick Kerby's strength as a director and choreographer is his ability to take his cast and mold them into something more. Here, aided by Vanessa Russo as co-choreographer, he makes the audience feel the world of the streets of what is now Lincoln Center in New York City.
Musical direction by Rick Bogner and his band is not his best work. For long stretches of the score, he is tight and idiomatic and then he will hit a section where it gets sloppy, messy. Perhaps he has compromised to make the music work more in harmony with the production. Set design by Lea Umberger is perfectly judged, the right off-kilter feel to be in synergy with Bernstein's music. Costumes by Becky Evans are some of her most realistic work, and Dalton Hamilton lighting is magnificent, with several magical moments such as the swirling black and white light pattern that takes us out of Maria's bedroom to the fantasy world where the gangs throw off their stifling hate to dance together.
West Side Story is an audacious risk for Kerby and Manatee Players. The level of achievement is remarkable, all things considered.
West Side Story, through August 25, 2019, at Manatee Players, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-749-1111 or visit ManateePerformingArtsCenter.com.