Friday, August 16, 2019

Raw, Thrilling “West Side Story” Plays Out in All It’s Ugliness and Beauty At Moonlight Stage Productions.

It could be the Jets, the Sharks, a lone shooter, a radicalized gun-man you name it, not much has changed from the hay day of musical theatre of the ‘50’s when the Leonard Bernstein (Music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book) and Jerome Robbins (choreography) “West Side Story” was on Broadway, to the beautifully reimaged production currently at Moonlight Stage Productions in Vista through Aug 31st.

Jets on one side, Sharks on the other,with Tony and Maria in the cross hairs
This iconic American Musical with all the underpinnings of race, prejudice and ethnic biases, repeating once again the long ago tragedy of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (set to open at the Old Globe this weekend), is on the one hand, thrilling. It’s thrilling to hear the music of Bernstein, the lyrics of Sondheim, and the Jerome Robbins physical, if not amazing choreography.

On the other hand its chilling to know ahead of time the tragedy that lies ahead for the two star crossed lovers, Maria (eighteen year old Bella Gill)  and Tony (Michael James Byrne), is still as beautiful, heart rendering and ugly as ever.
Courtney Arango (center) 
“West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957. The setting is placed in the mid fifties and early sixties during the turbulent years of race riots and ethnic profiling. Ironically Bernstein, Laurents and Jerome Robbins (who came up with the idea for the story) had initially focused the plot on the conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the lower east side of Manhattan. 

Over time the story that now centers on the rivalry between the Puerto Rican’s (The Sharks) and White’s (The Jets) fighting over the same piece of turf in their neighborhood on the Upper West Side slums of Manhattan, 1955 could be substituted for any racial clashes or neighborhoods, schools, malls or religious institutions; sadly anywhere in the U.S still today.   

The love story is the background that sets a stage for the heartbreaking ending as Tony and Maria fall head over heels for each other. When they do meet in a dreamlike sequence at a school dance (“Dance At The Gym”) designed to bring the two rival sides together, (“Tonight” “Maria”) the die has been cast.
Bella Gil and Michael James Byrne
While Maria and Tony are falling hard, the Jets new leader and Tony’s bud Riff (a wonderful Taylor Simmons) challenges Bernardo (steamy, handsome and extraordinary dancer Armando Eleazer) and the Sharks to a ‘rumble’. 

Maria, a recent arrival from Puerto Rico and Bernardo’s sister has no history of turf wars. She is working in the local bridal shop with Anita, Bernardo’s squeeze (sexy and captivating Courtney Arango). Tony, on the other hand is trying to move on with his life and is somewhat removed from the Jet’s street fighting.  Unfortunately, he reluctantly agrees to get pulled into one last ‘rumble’ in the hopes of reaching some peace.
Armando Eleazar as Bernardo and Tylor Simmons as Riff
Bernardo is the head honcho of the Sharks and has hand picked his fiend Chino (Marcus Alexander) to be Maria’s intended. She has other ideas. Bernardo and Anita have different takes on how to become assimilated (or not) into the American psyche. (“America”/”I Have a Love”). Bernardo is old school while Anita has a feistiness that pushes her to want to fit into her new world. 

The star-crossed lovers are oblivious to everything else going on around them and think they are different; that their love can conquer all. (“One Hand One Heart”). None of it is pretty, yet the simple and naïve love story aches to be heard as Moonlight’s protagonists under the deft direction of artistic chief Steve Glaudini find a way be together with a convincing chemistry that this young couple manages to prove from beginning to end.   

Anita, who has some sympathy for Maria allows herself to get drawn into the drama by standing up for Maria (“I Have a Love”) and in a round about way, is a co conspirator. Hearts stop when she agrees to deliver a message to Tony from Maria about a meeting place for them (“Somewhere”) that will take them away from this craziness.
Courtney Arango and Bella Gil
She faces the Jets head on in the Jet’s neighborhood hangout, Doc’s Drug Store.  Rather than agreeing to bring her to Tony she finds herself ridiculed and taunted by some of the hot headed young and stupid Jets anxious to start their own ‘rumble’ with her in a nasty turn about of events that sets us up for that fateful last scene I so hate to watch.

Ralph Johnson is perfect as Doc, the only adult in the room with a head on his shoulders who walks in on the Jets as they are about to rape Anita and disgustingly admonished the boy’s with “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!” To wit they reply that they found it this way.

Both Byrne and Gil were in fine voice on opening night. For the first time yours truly found this production to be more operatic in tone than ever.  Gil’s voice, while a bit thin in the higher registers still managed to fill the stage with soaring vocals, solo and in duet with Bryne (One Hand/One Heart”/ “Tonight”). Courtney Arango and the Shark’s (Milan Magana, Mikayla Agrella, and Elise Gonsalves to name a few) girls stole every scene from “America” to the all company “Tonight” as talent oozes from this young enthusiastic and talented cast.
Dream Sequence
Anthony Fletcher is the race-baiting detective that is just as much a part of the instigating as the gang members. Fletcher walks the walk with confidence while stirring the pot and is just as much the problem as he might have been the solution. 

And then there is Officer Krupke, baton in hand looking for trouble. (Devin Collins ) “Gee Officer Krupke” is the poking fun at the law tune that has both law enforcers looking like incompetents.

Lacy Beegun is Anybody the tomboy who cant wait to be included as a Jet. She too joins the dance ensemble and is quick to show off her steps.

With a beautifully balanced ensemble of no less than thirty mostly singers and dancers pumping energy into this historical American tragedy and with the big orchestra sounds under the direction of Elan McMahan and co-musical director Randi Ellen Rudolph’s 29 piece orchestra, and the reproduced, exciting and physical (some of the finest) choreography by Hector Gerrero “West Side Story” still ranks up there in the top ten American Musicals.  

The Moonlight cast is in constant motion from Tony climbing the ladder to Maria’s window to the mechanics of staging a big 'rumble' (read gang fight). Robert Andrew Kovach designed a balcony platform and scant moveable sets surrounded by chain link fences on three sides.

Jennifer Edwards effective lighting casting shadows in the dark and light on the lovers, to the gangs running back and forth, sliding under, climbing atop fences, or to dancing in the High School Gym all serve the large stage well.

 Jim Zadai designed the sound and Peter Herman, the wigs.

Carlotta Malone built the period costumes along with Roslyn Lehman and Renetta Lloyd, the fearsome threesome of Moonlight’s costume shop.

The two gangs, and there are some talented kids (Trevor Rex as Diesel and meet at times to discuss a possible rumble in what might be called neutral territory, “Doc’s Drugstore and on some occasions they skillfully skim and tumble over the chain linked fences or are in constant motion…until the end, when silence grips both audience and gang members in a scene too wrenching to describe. 
At Doc's with Tony and Bernardo (Ralph Johnson in background)
“West Side Story” lost out to “Music Man” for Best Musical when the Tony’s were announced in 1957. Some called that a scandal. It’ s all a matter of taste and timing. Both musicals have their place in history. Sadly, in the scheme of things  “West Side Story” and the message therein is as current today as it was over fifty years ago.

If you are a sentimental softie like me, bring tissues
More Dream Sequence
See you at the theatre.


Dates: Through Aug. 31st
Organization: Moonlight Stage Productions
Phone: 760-724-2110
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1250 Vale terrace Drive, Vista
Ticket Prices: $17.00-$5700
Web: moonlightstage.com
Photo: Ken Jacques

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