BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY at Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre
"Could it be? Yes it could. / Something's coming, something good, / If I can wait," sings Tony in the famous Leonard Bernstein number. Well, something good's already here in Fort Wayne this month. What is it, you ask? This year's Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre cast and production team, playing their own version of WEST SIDE STORY this weekend and next at South Side High School.
I have seen a lot of high school productions in the past decade (so many), and I don't think it's an overgeneralization to say that typically there is a standard "high school caliber." One generally expects a show full of high schoolers to meet this caliber; sometimes it's slightly better, and sometimes the production ends up being underwhelming for whatever reason, but it's usually in the ballpark one would expect for a high school show.
The Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre's WEST SIDE STORY, under the direction of Andrew Sherman and with a cast of high schoolers and middle schoolers from nearly twenty area schools, absolutely blows these expectations out of the water.
The performance level of these young actors, and the level of professionalism exhibited on stage tonight, proved that it's not the age of a cast that matters; instead, it's the effort that they put into their craft. The opening fight scene in the prologue demonstrated this instantly. To have so many teen boys on stage at the same time (I couldn't get a solid count, but it felt like anywhere between thirty and fifty), and then to have them completing what is clearly carefully choreographed chaos- but to have it look so streamlined and natural? It was a work of art.
Corey Lee's scenic and lighting design certainly helped set the scene with graffiti-covered ramps and stairs, painted with the contrast between dramatic red and cool blue lighting. Is the red vs. blue scheme world-shatteringly original? No, although it was well-executed, which sometimes does the trick just fine on its own. But against this backdrop, the cast of young actors really brought their A-game to the stage to round out the story and make it feel real and as though it were happening right now, today.
There's a moment at the end of "Cool" where one of the Jets hands off a blue bandana to a tiny young boy, played by Parker Nagel. That image hit me hard, as it solidified the thematic motif of cyclical violence and the tragedy of how these behaviors are passed down to younger generations. A similar idea cropped up again in "Somewhere," the staging of which was unlike I'd ever seen before. This production keeps some of the classic WEST SIDE STORY choreography, such as the dance in the gym, but they took a risk by truly innovating "Somewhere." I don't want to spoil anyone else's experience of the song, but I will say that a) I wept, and b) it is a moment of musical theatre that I will not forget.
And like I mentioned before, this show's cast bursts to the brim with talent. Aaron Hawley's rich, warm voice brought a sincere vitality to the leading role of Tony; after his first song, I thought to myself, "Even if Maria isn't great, at least this Tony makes up for it." And then Erica Ashley sang her first few notes as Maria in the balcony scene and I realized that the audience was truly in for a treat as she continued to grace us with her gentle vibrato and effortless range, not to mention her heart-wrenching acting. Marco Escobar's seemingly limitless confidence as the Sharks' gang leader Bernardo was a delight to watch, and I couldn't take my eyes off his fight sequences with Riff-- played by Connor Beer, a powerhouse stage presence in his own right.
I've seen countless iterations of WEST SIDE STORY and never noticed or cared about the character of Rosalia until tonight, played with heart by Julia Giron. Two other standout performances were Aiden Ocken's lively antics as the fiery Action and Dustin Hornbeak's investment in physically embodying the character of Baby John from head to toe every single second he was on stage.
All in all, no matter how familiar you are with the story or the original music, you'll find something to love about this immensely moving production. WEST SIDE STORY plays June 22, 28, and 29 at 7:30 p.m. and June 23 and 30 at 2:00 p.m. at South Side High School on Calhoun Street.
Now part of Indiana Musical Theatre Foundation, Inc., the Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre has been a staple of Fort Wayne summers since 1999, giving young actors from all across northeast Indiana an opportunity to work with students from other schools and learn from theatre professionals, all while putting together a show in just a few short weeks. You can find out more about the program or about WEST SIDE STORY on their website or by visiting their Facebook page.
Photos by Darby LeClear, provided by Fort Wayne Summer Music Theatre.