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MusicalFare’s WEST SIDE STORY surrounds younger cast with decades of hands-on experience working with that incredible Bernstein score

THE BASICS: WEST SIDE STORY, the famous 1957 musical by Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim, directed by Chris Kelly opened on September 4 and runs through October 6, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 & 7:30, and Sundays at 2 (Note: “Curtain Up!” September 20 has an 8 p.m. start) at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street, Amherst (on the Daemen College campus, enter from Getzville Road) (839-8540) www.musicalfare.com Runtime: 2-1/2 hours with one intermission (full service bar, spacious lounge)  Note: adult situations including shootings and rape presented

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Set in the mid-1950s in New York City’s West Side (the area now occupied by Lincoln Center) this is a retelling of ROMEO AND JULIET, where Tony, who is white and a (former) member of the Jets gang, falls in love with Maria, sister of Bernardo, who is the leader of a rival Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks.  Leonard Bernstein’s score coupled with Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics resulted in a musical with arguably more beloved and covered songs than any other musical including the “Jet Song”, “Something’s Coming”, “Maria”, “Tonight”, “America”, “Cool”, “One Hand, One Heart”, “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty”, “Somewhere”, “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “A Boy Like That”.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This production features all of the major roles, but whittles the original Broadway cast of 37 down to 22 characters, noticeable only in the large dance scenes,  but even after downsizing, the MusicalFare stage did seem a bit crowded at times.

 

WSS L-R Dominique Kempf as Maria explains how she feels about Tony to Anita played by Blaise Mercedes credit Doug Weyand

The cast is much more authentic than you’ve probably seen before, with significant borrowing of talent from Buffalo’s Latinx (Hispanic) Raíces Theatre Company starting with Raíces Founder Victoria Pérez, who was recruited as “cultural authenticity advisor” which, among other things, included dialect coaching and helping actress Dominique Kempf get fully immersed in the role of Maria. Raíces Theatre members, all bilingual, included Alejandro Gabriél Goméz who was rock solid and a real standout as Bernardo, Jordan Rosas who brought nuance to the role of Chino, Lissette DeJesús as Consuelo, Julieana Guash as Francisca, and Alexia Guzmán as Rosalie. Blaise Mercedes who is one of the best Anitas you’ll see and Dan Torres (Pepe) haven’t appeared in Raíces productions to my knowledge, but they are both firecrackers and I’m sure will be signed up soon.

I was puzzled why Leah Berst who has a voice as big as Manhattan was cast in a minor role, Velma, but perhaps the producers wanted someone in reserve, just in case. Also impressive were Brendan Didio who usually plays “nice guys” but was pretty scary as Action, and the same goes for Theatre of Youth regular Dan Urtz as Diesel, with strong support from cast members Koby Morgan as Baby John, and Rheanna Gallego was equally wonderful here playing the character Anybodys.

Talented all, of course, but a show with as many moving parts as WEST SIDE STORY needs good direction, and that they got in spades from one of Buffalo’s finest – Chris Kelly.

Talented all, of course, but a show with as many moving parts as WEST SIDE STORY needs good direction, and that they got in spades from one of Buffalo’s finest – Chris Kelly. And, speaking of “old hands,” a quick shout-out to Bobby Cooke who doubles as Officer Krupke and a very grounded Doc (and also provided choreography!) and also to Phil Farugia, who dashed out from backstage where he is music director, to play the utility roles of Shrank and Gladhand. Kudos to choreographers Bobby Cooke (as mentioned) and Nancy Hughes and fight choreographer Steve Vaughan, who told us before the show that this is his 33rdproduction of WEST SIDE STORY (albeit 15 of them were different high school productions). Decades of experience with that team.

WSS Blaise Mercedes, center, brings it as Anita credit Doug Weyand

So what did I love? Three numbers that felt fresh included “Cool” in which the stunning lighting by Chris Cavanagh and the moveable chain link fencing, part of the set by the consistently inspired Lynne Koscielniak, became two other characters in the sequence. Also, “I Feel Pretty” was cleverly choreographed and it made Maria appear giddy but not silly, confident but not vain. That felt new. And the ensemble piece “Officer Krupke” was the best version I’ve seen. In the past, this number always seemed self-conscious, as if the actors knew they were acting and seemed to convey “Hey, look at us, we can do characters, this will look good on our resumes.” Here, at MusicalFare, everyone came across as completely authentic.

WSS Ricky Needham as Tony, Dominique Kempf as Maria, set by Lynne Koscielniak, lighting by Chris Cavanagh

Also, director Kelly almost always has cast members who are not in the scene hovering quietly in the background shadows, behind fences, in doorways. I cannot explain why that worked so well to bring life and energy to the show, but it did.

What did I love “not so much?” It was probably opening night jitters, but the dancing in the opening “Jet Song” could have been a touch more crisp. Maria was having trouble with intonation and support for her high notes and she is much, much better than that, as anyone who watched her in RAGTIME knows. Speaking of RAGTIME, the same MusicalFare stage for that seemed enormous, but this stage felt cramped. Perhaps that was by design to heighten the intensity. And while the band was generally excellent, there were moments when they weren’t Maria’s friend, sometimes taking Bernstein’s jazz inspired score into Kurt Weill THREEPENNY OPERA which is, by design, supposed to sound out of tune. Also, whenever Maria was embracing Tony, somebody’s microphone started to emit scratchy noises.

And while the staging of “America” was satisfying (Mr. Farugia brought his guitar out on stage and many of the performers doubled on percussion instruments, including the güiro, that gourd with the notches in the side) a lot of the Sondheim magic was lost in the performance because you couldn’t clearly understand Anita, who has a snappy comeback for everything Rosalia says, such as in the rhymes: “I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan/If there’s a road you can drive on” or “I’ll bring a T.V. to San Juan/If there’s a current to turn on!”  And, to my great disappointment, the verse sung by the Shark women “Immigrants goes to America/Many hellos in America/Nobody knows in America/Puerto Rico’s in America!” was just glossed over. Last summer, at the Glimmerglass Opera’s performance of WEST SIDE STORY, admittedly only a year at that point since Hurricane Maria and the lackluster response by the White House, that line was a showstopper.

Also, I just didn’t feel the thunderbolt between Tony and Maria. When they meet at the dance… meh. Ricky Needham has a lovely voice across his entire range, but the chemistry was not there. So, given that the work itself is truly superb (5 Buffalos) and yet I still have my issues (3 Buffalos) I’d give this 4 Buffalos and if I were you “I would make a real effort to attend.”

UP NEXT: At the Premier Cabaret in the front of the theater DISENCHANTED is a musical satire on Disney princesses and has only nine performances from October 12 through November 2. Also, AN EVERLY BROTHERS CABARET features MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET cast members Brandon Barry and Joseph Donohue III, Saturday, October 25 at 8 p.m. Note: these cabaret events often sell out early.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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