By PAM HARBAUGH
Riverside Theatre’s production of “West Side Story” opens with that Jerome Robbins’ iconic dance move — arms outstretched, body balancing high on one foot. The Jets gang soar over the dingy streets of New York City’s upper west side, falling into graceful step with one another. Their heady sense of power soon disappears when the Sharks gang appear and all becomes a beautifully choreographed brawl.
This is only the opening. You know you’re in for a theatrical treat filled with thrilling dance and music. And Riverside delivers again and again.
There is so much to swoon over Riverside’s wonderful production, directed reverently by DJ Salisbury. There’s the satisfying dance, mostly Jerome Robbins’ exhilarating aesthetic; the excellent orchestra offering up Leonard Bernstein’s rapturous score; Stephen Sondheim’s delectable lyrics…
…then, there’s Anthony Festa, the essence of perfection in his portrayal of Tony. This is a name you will get to know, for Mr. Festa has the goods to become a big name on Broadway and demand ticket prices much higher than those at Riverside. He easily sets sail for the high notes, hitting every musical milestone along the way. But more than that technical ability, he is a wonder at dramatic, heartfelt interpretation of Tony, the young man who senses that he’s about to be swept up into something beyond his control. We feel that pull of magic and fate when he sings “Something’s Coming.” We ride wonder with him as he sings “Maria,” invoking her name over and over.
And it’s this deeper magic, if you will, that moves this story along. Tony and Maria are the Romeo and Juliette of the Shakespeare play that informs the story. They are the star crossed lovers, destined for each other. Their love becomes the tragic lesson for the two rival gangs — the Jets and the Sharks.
As Maria, Belinda Allyn sings splendidly, especially in “One Hand One Heart” which she sings with Mr. Festa and “I Have a Love” which she sings with Penelope Armstead-Williams who portrays Anita.
Ms. Armstead-Williams is a dream on stage. Her Anita is vibrant, protective, sexy and angry. As her boyfriend, Sean Ewing oozes sensuality as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks and Maria’s brother.
Michael D. Jablonski makes a solid Riff, the leader of the Jets. And Andrew Purcell is a fierce Action. And, as the production’s fight captain, Mr. Purcell does some terrific work.The company is especially wonderful in the “Dance at the Gym,” “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
This timeless tale first hit Broadway in 1957. It’s had four revivals, the most recent one inspiring its late librettist, Arthur Laurents, to re-write some of the dialogue in Spanish. Mr. Laurents also directed that production.
While that Spanish updated the musical somewhat for contemporary audiences, here, director DJ Salisbury adds a deeper element. That tweak is in the character of Anybodys, who is usually portrayed as a Tomboy wanting to hang out with the Jets. Here, Elizabeth Racanelli gives Anybodys a rich, honest portrayal, showing the character as the lesbian or transgender who identifies with the guys. Although she helps save Tony, Anybodys is criticized and told to put on a dress; you feel how unfairly she is being treated and how she just wants to belong. Then, to have Anybodys participate in the dream sequence when Sarah Parnicky sings “Somewhere there’s a place for us,” you feel closer to the character and hope that she, too, can find a place where she feels she fits.
Conductor/music director Ken Clifton’s orchestra is top rate. Alex Sanchez’ choreography, which is based on Mr. Robbins’ work, is simply, thrilling. Cliff Simon’s scenic design is smart, evocative and practical (a nice thematic touch with that faded wording that speaks to cleaner whites and brighter colors). Lighting designer Yael Lubetsky carves moody moments and works well with the three-dimensional qualities to Mr. Simon’s design. And, Holly Payne’s smart costume design are on the mark.
With so many fine elements and sterling performances, Riverside Theatre has created is fine, professional production of “West Side Story.” Tickets are selling briskly. Don’t hesitate to go.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “West Side Story” has been extended to run through March 15 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Drive, Vero Beach. It performs Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets begin at $35. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.RiversideTheatre.com