West Side Story

  • 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

Comments

  1. Where was the House Manager when all that disruptive behavior was going on?

  2. The house manager was on site. She was kept very active. Not only by visiting the coordinator of this group, who was not able to keep control of her group, but also dealing with several other problems. Apparently one woman made a reservation for 2 people and showed up with 20. They arrived 15 minutes before the buffet was going to close and then harassed the staff about the food that was out and getting salads (which had been cleared 10 minutes before they showed up). Typically plates are left at the seats, but only 2 seats had been set up and so 18 seats were not set up. The wait staff were all in the production that evening and suddenly 30 minutes before curtain instead of making a last round for drinks, they had to serve this large party and set up seats, etc…and still get ready to perform. The house manager still had several problems that she was trying to rectify at intermission and spent the entire time working on these groups. I felt very sorry for her as I listened to some of her conversations as I passed her by. She was trying her best, but the large groups were doing their darnedest to make life truly difficult and not complying.

  3. I wss not in attendance at the performance described above but it seems to me that these rude and disruptive people should have been asked to leave the theater. This type of behavior is not fair to the performers or the other audience members. If they refused to leave it would appear to me that the house manager should have asked for assistance from the local law enforcement office. Sounds like they could have been charged with disorderly conduct.

  4. I’ve attended several productions at Toby’s. The house does very little to appease the theatre-going crowd. In their eyes, they have your money – good luck after that. They care about making money, nothing else.

  5. Joel Markowitz says:

    I have been bringing my social group The Ushers to Toby’s for 19 years. The house staff and group sales staff have always been wonderful to me and my group, and have gone out their way to make sure we are having a good time. There is so much rudeness and lack of respect today in the theatre, with people talking and text messaging, and talking on their cell phones, and checking their messages, and unwrapping food during the performance, that there isn’t much anyone can do except to turn to these rude people and demand they stop. If they don’t stop, you need to find the house manager to do something. If at this performance the house manager was asked to help and did nothing, I would have been upset, and followed up with a call to the management. I’m surprised that the actors didn’t stop the show and demand that they stop talking. I’ve been in NYC where the actors stopped the show and demanded that a rude person or persons stop talking or text messaging, etc.

  6. This is the part of Mr. Ying’s article that pissed me off and caused me to make the original comment:
    ” …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. …”

    There was no mention of the Toby’s staff doing anything. It should not be up to the “fellow patrons” to shush fellow patrons. If the situation was as bad as described, the show should have been stopped long enough to evict the people causing the disturbance.

  7. I have enjoyed a number of performances at Toby’s in the past and hope to continue to do so in the future. I don’t recall anything like this ever happening while I was attending a show there. I agree with Janet’s comment above that the show should have been stopped and the offenders removed from the theater. If the offenders were too hard to handle, local law enforcement officers should have been called (see my earlier comment above from Aug 12). These people should not have been allowed to spoil the show for the other attendees (and for the performers). Believe me I’ve seen my share of offenders, but this seems like a very large group of offenders. Maybe Toby’s should establish a “plan of action” if something like this should occur again.

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