By PAM HARBAUGH
From the first downbeat in the splendid overture to “West Side Story,” you know you are in for a treat with Cocoa Village Playhouse’ marvelously sung, beautifully staged and exquisitely run production of “West Side Story.”
While the musical is an amazing 58 years old, it still resonates with power and thematic relevance. Of course, that in part is due to its universality and its creators — composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, librettist Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins. There have been four revivals since its 1957 Broadway debut plus the celebrated 1961 Robert Wise movie musical. You’d be hard pressed to name a county in this country which has not produced this beloved American musical either in either community or academic theater.
Based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the theme is the toll exacted by ethnic hatred and bigotry. Like the Shakespeare tragedy, it begins with a fight between rival street gangs — here, it’s the Jets and the Sharks — then a dance where two unlikely young people fall in love, setting in action a string of incidents resulting in tragedy.
In “West Side Story,” the “star crossed lovers” are Tony, whose best friend is the leader of the Caucasian Jets, and Maria, whose brother is leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks. It is set in the late 1950s in New York City’s Upper West Side, before it was gentrified.
You’re gonna melt when you hear Isabel Prado sing “Tonight” and “One Heart” in her role of Maria. Beautiful and sensitive, talented and expressive, this young soprano has the goods. Opposite her is the beautifully voiced Dillon Giles, a crooner in the making who is a splendid, heartfelt Tony. When he sings “Something’s Coming” you feel Tony’s excitement and he builds onto it with the aria “Maria.”
Nicole Ramos will steal your heart as Anita, especially in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” duet with Maria. We see her character grow from bitter when she sings “Very smart Maria, very smart!” and then finally allowing herself to understand the love Maria has for Tony.
Frederic Toland brings good, solid toughness onto the stage as Action, the ready to rumble Jets member. He goes from funny in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the musical number in which the Jets members parody the established court system, to darkly menacing in the scene when Anita goes to Doc’s Drugstore to deliver an important message to Tony.
Other standouts are Justine Radlein as Riff, Tyreek Greene as Bernardo, Mitchel Burns as Big Deal and Robbie Mackish as Diesel.
Co-directors Anastacia Hawkins-Smith and choreographer Pamela Larson, wisely base staging and dance numbers on Jerome Robbins’ original choreography. While parts of the dancing may be challenging for some, you cannot do this show without those soaring Jerome Robbins gestures and we are happy to accept that not everyone on that stage is a professionally trained dancer. Good fight direction by Lawrence Mazza.
Big kudos to music director/conductor J. Thomas Black, Jr. who scores a bulls’ eye. Really. The music is sensational. And a “woo hoo” to percussionist Mike Bauer.
Ian Cook’s scenic and lighting design smartly create complex, darkened, claustrophobic environments from which the characters rightfully cannot escape. His use of stars at the dance is a sweet nod to the Bard’s “star crossed lovers” motif. Daniel Hill’s costume design is flawless (although the hairdo for some of those girls is a bit too “today” and not enough 1950s). And Sheryl Koby continues to amaze with her professional scenic painting.
But another big kudo here to the very professional work by stage manager Brian Brown. He keeps this show moving fast with scenery flying and getting pushed on and off in two seconds at the most, especially so in the “Somewhere” ballet which takes us immediately from Maria’s bedroom to a bucolic setting and back again. No doubt, Mr. Brown must be a terror backstage.
This is some show. You won’t want to miss it.
For a video of the opening night excitement, click here.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “West Side Story” runs through Feb. 22 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. Curtain is 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $18 to $32. Call 321-636-5050 or visit www.CocoaVillagePlayhouse.com.