Two Sides to 'West Side Story' at CCBC Essex

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SHOW INFORMATION:  Through April 28: April 23 – 24 at 10AM, April 25 at 8PM, April 21 12:30PM.  $8 General/$5 Students/Alumni/Faculty.  Tickets and information at or 410-780-6369. 

◊◊◊ out of five.  1 hour, 55 minutes, including intermission.  Stylized gang violence (including switchblades and a gun), sexual situations, racial content.


The production of that great American classic, West Side Story, which opened last weekend at CCBC-Essex offers a veritable study of a performance where what is good is excellent and what is lacking is not good theatre.  Fortunately, the young, talented cast is, for the most part, able to rise above any shortcomings and show off some definite skill.  In fact, vocally, this may be one of the strongest non-professional productions of the show I've seen. 

First of all, I must comment on the running time of the show – well under two hours if you subtract the intermission time!  Most of the cuts to the "normal" running time, it seems, has been in the excising of whole sections of dance music, including an abbreviated "America," "Dance at the Gym," and "Somewhere."  Audiences familiar with the show might not even notice, since all of the prime material remains in tact in each number.  Not to worry though – the dance-heavy show still has plenty of dancing, provided by choreographers Christian Ian Richards and Lori Yuill.  Both have created mostly original dances, with obvious nods to Jerome Robbins' original iconic staging (most notably in "Cool").  And, for the most part, the cast is up to the challenge.  Mr. Richards and Ms. Yuill clearly know where the strength of their cast lies, with the lion's share of the dancing going to the Jets, who take up most of the dancing in the Prologue, the "Dance at the Gym" and really tear it up with "Cool."  This may be the first West Side Story that almost ignores the Sharks as far as staging, but it is with good reason.  The night I attended, they, to a person, struggled with what choreography they had, ranging from passable to clumsily awkward.  To be completely fair, there were exactly three male Sharks and their "girls" outnumbered them two to one.  Still, the choreography mirrors the entire production: there is true excellence ("Cool"), boring mediocrity ("I Feel Pretty") and downright sufferablity ("The Prologue"/"The Dance at the Gym"). 

Director James Hunnicutt has similar issues in his staging, some of it unavoidable given the unit setting, designed and lit by Terri Raulie.  That unit set has its own pluses and minuses.  On the plus side, there are some ingenious ways of taking us to various locales in Hell's Kitchen – Maria's sofa, Doc's Drug Store tables and chairs, etc. come out in a sliding platform hidden behind a garage door, while the bridal shop slides easily out from under Maria's balcony.  The problem with the unit set is that very little is done to show us where we are when we leave that block – absolutely nothing is done to show us under the highway, for example.  Even more surprising is that given the lack of scenery to change, the blackouts are interminably long, with everyone in place, standing in the dark, waiting for the music to stop (I don't believe you are required to play every note of the change music when you also cut whole sections of other songs!).  This drains the show of any and all momentum. 

But much bigger than that, along with several regrettable staging choices, both the set and direction virtually ignore they key theme to the piece: tension – between races, between crime and punishment, between the haves and the have-nots.  Because the set never changes and because everything is in close proximity, there is no division between Jet and Shark territory.  As staged, the Prologue offers nothing in terms of establishing a really almost-to-the-boiling-point tension between the gangs.  Again, the Sharks are severely outnumbered – and the girls fight, too.  This doesn't even make sense plot-wise as both sets of girls later have dialogue which talks about how silly the boys' fighting is.  Much of this might have been avoided by helping the young cast create back story and really work on creating a tense atmosphere.  Some requisite pushing and shoving and seriously over-acted chumminess in front of the cops doesn't really cut it.  Mr. Hunnicutt also has problems with focus when more than one thing is happening at once on stage.  A less egregious example of this happens during the "Tonight Quintet" which, oddly, closes act one.  In that number, groups are strategically placed around the stage as the characters prepare for the impending rumble.  But instead of each group freezing while another sings, they continue moving, gesturing and posturing, so it is never 100% clear where we are to look, even as the light changes would seem to indicate that very thing.  Still, if there is one place where focus is crucial, it is at the point where Tony and Maria lock eyes and join hearts from across the room at the dance.  If you don't know to watch for it, you miss it, and even when they do meet center stage (and nervously close to the pit opening), they aren't even the focus, as the dance continues behind them.  True the cast is dancing in shoulder to shoulder heads down clumps, but they never stop moving or (literally) stomping on the stage. 

After scouring the program, and aside from a program note that tells us both CCBC Essex and West Side Story are 50 years old, there is no true indication as to when this is taking place.  One assumes, from the greased hair and chinos, and a couple of poodle-less poodle skirts, and Cokes in bottles, that this is the 1950's, but so much else indicates otherwise.  There is the hair issue, with almost all of the boys sporting modern, long hair, greased back in perfect parts, but with enough hair combed back to create unintentional Mohawks a la Sunjaya.  Then there is the unfortunate case of the Shark girls' dresses, a Goodwill rummage sale if I ever saw one, and not a single dress flattering or even in style.  One young lady wears a dress exactly like my date wore to a homecoming dance in 1984.  Given James J. Fasching's usual attention to detail and penchant for trying to approximate history, this lapse is somewhat surprising. 

The cast itself fares much better than the show they are in.  The minute each of them opens their mouth to sing, it is immediately clear why each won the role they play, so much so that in some cases it seems like two actors are playing the same role: they act and sing their songs remarkably well, but their acting in the book scenes seems stilted.  Still others are great all-around.  In that former group is Phil Diedeman as Riff, who sings the hell out of "The Jet Song," strutting and manly-sure, only to lapse into an odd meathead slouch and slurred speech when he talks.  Similarly, Kate Aichroth as Rosalie does a fine job as Anita's antithesis in "America," while she is an unintelligible monotone in the scene which surrounds "I Feel Pretty."  Finally, Hyejin Park's Maria is beautifully sung – this young woman has an amazing, easy soprano – but her odd posture (neck unmoving) is uncomfortable to watch, and her faster than a speeding train dialogue is one Latin flavored blur. 

Oddly, all three adult roles – Doc (Saul Clark-Braverman), Lt. Schrank (Scott Phar) and Officer Krupke (Charlotte St. Pierre) – offer almost no counterpoint to the youthful wasteland they are forced to live in.  When Doc slaps Tony back to reality, it is almost unseen and has no impact as, at that very point, Mr. Braverman is yelling his lines in a numbing monotone.  Mr. Phar reads his lines like he memorized them minutes before curtain, and Ms. St. Pierre never looks more than uncomfortable as she states her lines with a per-syllable gesture.  I will say, though, that I give CCBC much credit for trying non-traditional casting.  As Chino and Bernardo, both Vittorio Grace and Diego Tapia suffer from the same malady.  Both use a monotone delivery coupled with a nearly unintelligible Hispanic accent. 

Happily, the majority of the cast is of the truly triple-threat variety – great singers/dancer/actors all.  There isn't a weak Jet in the bunch – Alex Barone and Bradley Silvestro bring a lot of street-wise character to their smaller roles, while Chris Jehnert brings some much needed tension to stage as his about to burst Action smolders and frets.  Joe Tudor and Nathan Boeker, as A-Rab and Baby John respectively, are both fantastic dancers, and are rightfully featured as such.  Mr. Tudor's rendition of "Cool" offers the evening one truly show stopping moment.  As the Jet girls, Candace Geelhaar and Tonya Stephens personify phony worldliness roughly hewn over blatant stupidity, which is exactly what their characters should be, and Kayleigh Daniels' Anybodys is a nice mix of tomboy and feminine wiles.   

Two company members, though, truly stick out for their excellence – Heather Elswick as Anita and Andrew Worthington as Tony.  Ms. Elswick has a firm grip on Anita's anger, strength and fears.  It is that slyly revealed fear that gives Anita her vulnerability and humanity, making her venture to save Tony an understandable move.  And what a voice!  She is a true actress-singer, giving as much effort to her interpretation as she does to her placement.  She is funny in "America," sexy in the "Tonight Quintet," and seething anger and anguish in "A Boy Like That."  Ms. Elswick is a young actress to watch for; she is the complete package.  Mr. Worthington is the very embodiment of All-American boy.  His smooth voice handles his songs well – though one hopes he gains some confidence in the higher range, which he sings beautifully, if not unnecessarily tentatively.  He is all grins and awkwardness as he falls head over heels for Maria, and a heartbreaker he tries in vain to be the peacemaker.  I look forward to seeing what he has to offer in future productions. 

West Side Story is a difficult piece, and the entire company should be proud of their effort, despite some unevenness in its presentation.  There are a number of really talented college students in our area, and the future here, unlike in West Side Story, is decidedly bright.


PHOTOS courtesy of CCBC Essex:  Top: Andrew Worthington as Tony and Hyejin Park as Maria; BOTTOM: (Seated, left to right) Phil Biedeman as Riff and Diego Tapia as Bernardo, surrounded by the Jets and Sharks.


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