Some consider 1957's West Side Story the best musical of all time, and a defining work of the brilliant composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. In his score, Bernstein interspersed "cool" 1950s jazz with classical, popular and Latin music, while drawing inspiration from opera to complement a modern version of Shakespeare's tragic love story Romeo and Juliet.
Beginning with a solitary whistle echoing against New York City's concrete walls and a bongo beat, the show's tumultuous symphonic score alternates between complex, discordant jazz and stirring love ballads.
Mounting West Side Story is an ambitious undertaking, requiring full orchestra, semi-operatic voices and trained ballet dancers, and Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) more than meets the challenge at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center. With a talented young cast, keen direction by Kenneth Beck and skillful conducting by Dennis G. Assaf, the production is top-notch.
The story centers on ethnic tensions dividing Puerto Rican residents and first-generation white Americans on New York's West Side. Competition for housing, jobs and even sweethearts results in aggression between The Sharks, who are Puerto Rican, and The Jets, who are white. Teenage street gangs led by Bernardo (Kirk Gagnon) and Riff (Bryce Slocumb) make plans to face off while police, led by Officer Krupke (Brian Rosenthal) and Lt. Schrank (Lawrence P. Beron) try to prevent violence. Wearing a gray suit, tie and felt hat, Lt. Schank warns The Jets, "You're gonna make nice with them PRs from now on. Because otherwise, I'm gonna beat the crap outta every one of ya and then run ya in."
The two groups stay at a distance at a dance at a gym, but two people unexpectedly come together. Maria (Tiffany Renee Bear), a shy girl promised to a Puerto Rican boy, and Tony (John Michael Haas), a Polish-American and Riff's best friend, meet and fall instantly in love. The couple, however, is inextricably involved in a clash of cultures. Memorable solos ("Maria," "Somewhere," "I Have a Love") and duets ("Tonight," "One Hand, One Heart") performed by Maria and Tony are perfect.
In the 1950s, the gangs' turf wars usually involved switchblades, sticks, stones or fists. But the rumbles in West Side Story created possibilities for astonishing, athletic dance by Jerome Robbins, one of musical theater's most innovative choreographers. Kenneth Beck based JPAS's dance routines on the original show's heart-stopping choreography, including terrific turns and leaps.
Gorgeous costuming with full-skirted '50s fuchsia, red and purple dresses and heels give the mambo dance sequences extra pizzazz, with particular praise to the amazing Anita (Micah Richerand Desonier). While The Jets look square in their plaid shirts, even by '50s standards, The Sharks led by the bravissimo Bernardo, are more menacing. Despite a few minor glitches with synching vocals and instrumentals, the performance was emotionally moving and worthy of Bernstein.