- West Side Story
- Book by Arthur Laurents
- Music by Leonard Bernstein
- Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
- Directed by and Choreographed by Mark Minnick
- Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore
- Reviewed by Ted Ying
“You saw how they dance, like they have to get rid of something…too much energy,” says Anita in West Side Story. High energy and tension are key to setting the tone for this Romeo and Juliet influenced classic Broadway musical. The dancers of Toby’s Baltimore production pack all that energy into their dancing and keep the scenes charged with electricity and volatility.
West Side Story has one of the strongest books in Broadway history. Despite being based on Shakespeare’s classic romance, Laurents’ script is made stronger by the background of racial friction that still delivers the same punch it did 51 years ago. By creating his own vernacular, he has made the story timeless. Bernstein’s music is still entrancing and Sondheim’s lyrics still stir the emotions. Director/choreographer Mark Minnick admired Jerome Robbins’ original movie choreography so much that a significant amount of that choreography has been adapted to Toby’s smaller stage.
This is a solid production helped along by some good performances. West Side Story‘s success hinges on its stars, Maria and Tony. The shining star of this cast was Jessica Ball as Maria. She impressed with her acting and dancing, but she took one’s breath away with her lovely soaring soprano. She effortlessly sang the high notes as if she could go up for another octave if necessary. Together she and Matthew Schleigh as Tony were very strong. One could feel the romance between these two and their voices blended so well in their duets. However, despite his all-American good looks and chemistry with Ball, Schleigh’s performance was uneven and he had some difficulties. His slight frame caused some challenges, such as when he called the larger and more muscular Jake Odmark (Riff), “little man” and when Bernardo, played by Darren McDonnell, assumed Tony was the Jets’ best fighter. But in general, his leading man strengths carried him through the production.
The dancing and gang scenes were excellent with some standout performances from several cast members including Odmark, McDonnell, Patrick Cragin as Action, Jamison Foreman as A-Rab and David Gregory as Chino, “Prologue”, “The Jet Song”, “Quintet” and “Gee Officer Krupke” were all well executed. These young men and the rest of the Jets and Shark gangs made you feel the frenzy and potency of their turf fight with every dance and scene. Amongst the women, there were also several standouts. Tina Marie DeSimone gave a strong performance as the sultry Anita. She also worked well with Ball in their mutual scenes. Rebecca Fale Chiu stood out as Velma, Riff’s girl. Although a small part in the play, she was a strong dancer and often featured in the dances for a reason. She glided through the heavily Jerome Robbins influenced choreography like a seasoned Broadway professional and helped highlight the dance scenes “Dance at the Gym” and “Cool.” As with the men, the women uniformly gave strong dance performances and brought down the house in “America”, where Katie Keyser shone vocally as Rosalia. Rachel Schlur brought charm and character to the role of tomboy Anybodys.
However, despite the solid performance by the cast, the production suffered from inconsistent technical support. The biggest challenge was the lack of live music. The prerecorded track was unforgivingly fast. Although that helped keep the energy and pace high for the up-tempo numbers, it was a challenge in several other places. Some of the vocalists had difficulties trying to act while singing with the brisk tempos and some of the dialogue over music was rushed through to make sure the timing was right.
David A. Hopkins designed a clever set that worked well. The main set was taken up by a stage-wide chain-link fence with an open gate in the middle. This was flanked by a low balcony and fire escapes on both sides. Everything else as needed was moved on and off quickly and efficiently by the cast and crew making for good transitions that did not break the rhythm created by the cast. Hopkins’ lighting design was sound but the execution was varied. There were several instances where actors were in shadow or the light changes were not timed well. The sound execution was very distracting the evening we saw the show. There were repeated pops and cracks from the microphones. Feedback occurred multiple times during the evening. And the balance between the music track and the vocals was uneven.
However, I must commend the entire cast and crew. The evening that we attended, there was a large group that took up approximately one third of our audience. This group included several international visitors who obviously had some difficulties with English. Within minutes of the house lights going down, they started to carry on as if they were in a bar and that the show going on was a jukebox playing in the background. They laughed at inopportune moments. They talked throughout the show, including talking louder during production numbers so that they could hear each other. They ignored shushing by fellow patrons around them. By the end of the night, I’m sure that the cast and crew’s nerves were frayed from this treatment. The ultimate insult was delivered during Maria’s climactic speech after Tony’s death. This group laughed and talked through this scene to the horror of the rest of the audience. Having seen over a dozen productions of this show, I felt Ball delivered this scene magnificently and was unjustly rewarded. My hat’s off to all of the cast and crew for performing so professionally throughout this trying experience.
Despite the trial exacted upon them by this group, they still provided the power and excitement necessary to make this show work. “But, don’t get hot, cause man you’ve got some high times ahead…” and so does this show.
Running Time 2:30 including one 20-minute intermission
When: Through August 24, Tues-Sat evenings 8:00 PM, Thurs & Sun matinees 12:30 PM, doors open 2 hours before show time, buffet served 15 minutes after doors open.
Where: Toby’ Baltimore, Best Western Hotel and Conference Center, 5625 O’Donnell Street, Baltimore, MD