WEST SIDE STORY at the Henegar Center. Photo by director Niko Stamos.
By JOAN TADDIE
Brevard Culture Theater Critic
As the “West Side Story” musical refrain goes, “We’re gonna rock it tonight.” And the Henegar Center does just that with its lively revival of the powerful, iconic musical.
Based on the tragic love story of “Romeo & Juliet,” the musical was conceived by Jerome Robbins, who also choreographed and directed the original 1957 Broadway production. The musical was composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. It was revived on Broadway in 2009 with Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) translating some dialogue and lyrics into street Spanish.
Its message is as relevant today as it was 60 plus years ago. Set against the violence and intolerance between two rival New York City teen-age gangs, the Latino Sharks and white Jets, the musical focuses on love between a young man and woman of different ethnicities.
The gangs’ hatred of each other begins from the very first note of Bernstein’s glorious score. Reflecting Robbins’ challenging, expressive balletic style, Luke Atkison’s choreography wows the audience as the stage comes alive with the ugliness of intolerance revealed through the grace of the dance.
Although fighting drives much of the plot, the sweet young love between Tony (Ethan Rich) and Maria (Olga Intriago) is enhanced by Bernstein’s beautiful melodies and Sondheim’s tender lyrics. Rich and Intriago perform their duets with dreamy control and hit all the high notes with power.
Two audience favorites are “Tonight,” sung on Maria’s balcony as Tony and Maria pledge their love for each other and “One Hand, One Heart” as they dream of their wedding in the bridal shop. Rich also impresses with his performance of “Maria,” easily hitting that final dramatic note.
There are limited moments in this show when the audience can enjoy a scene that is lighthearted and fun. When Anita (dazzling Dani Montalvo) and the Shark girls sing about the differences between Puerto Rico and America, the audience relaxes and enjoys the ride. Rosalia (an endearing Kayla Elliot) shines in this number as she yearns to return to Puerto Rico.
Montalvo also gives a heartbreaking performance when she attempts to deliver Maria’s message to Tony at the drugstore. I would like to see the same spitfire, sensuous attitude in more scenes, which would help to more clearly define this fabulous character.
The hardest working actors in this production are the Jets and the Sharks and their girls, who are responsible for all the set changes. Oh…and they have to sing in complicated harmonies and some sing and speak in Spanish.
Joseph Kienstra plays Riff, the leader of the Jets. He commands attention with strong vocals and a smooth dance style. Dylan Intriago embraces the character of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. He is protective of his family, his gang and his honor.
All the girls from both gangs are tough, sexy and are powerful singers and dancers. Amanda Gazy, a smart, intuitive actress, plays Anybodys, a tomboy who longs to be accepted by the males in the Jets as an equal.
Rob Landers is Lt. Schrank, a hardened police detective whose vision is clouded by racism. Stewart Egebrecht is “Doc,” a fair minded owner of a drugstore who pleads “Why do you live like there’s a war on? Why do you kill?”
Director Niko Stamos did an exceptional job of casting this production. He, along with choreographer (Atkison) and music director, Spencer Crosswell, found talented actors who can also sing and dance. They wowed the audience with production numbers such as “The Dance At the Gym,” “Cool,” the “Tonight Quintet,” and the entertaining “Gee, Officer Krupke,” featuring Kevin Nolan as Action.
Simple scaffolding forms the set, allowing not only interesting blocking but also an impressionistic sense of a tenement neighborhood filled with quick get-a-way fire escapes. A complex lighting design, created by Atkison, who also serves as lighting designer, enhances the impression, creating mood and scene change.
The simple costume design uses today’s street fashions. Jets wear blue, Sharks wear red, and in the idyllic dream sequence all the actors wear white.
As director, Stamos made an artistic decision to use a young voice, Connor DeRoche, to sing the “Somewhere” solo. His beautiful angelic voice reminds us to have hope that in this world of violence, fear, and intolerance, “We’ll find a new way of living. We’ll find a way of forgiving… Somewhere.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “West Side Story” runs through May 19 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne. Tickets are $19 to $29. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.