BWW Review: Jacksonville's Youth Rumble in WEST SIDE STORY at SMTE
For 12 years running, the FSCJ Artist series and the Wilson Center for the Arts has produced an Annual High School Summer Musical Theatre Experience. This year brings WEST SIDE STORY, a mammothly essential piece of work to all musical theatre lovers. With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, WEST SIDE STORY is often heralded as a top 5 work of theatre. The show runs through July 30th, and tickets are available here.
WEST SIDE STORY is a modernized take on ROMEO AND JULIET, set in the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1950's. Exploring the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage gangs, WEST SIDE STORY is about the power of hate, the encompassing, manipulative obscurity that overtakes a neighborhood leading to bloodshed and grief. Of the handful of shows that have the power to open eyes and speak across cultural lines in an effort to unite while exposing the depths of darkness, it is, in my opinion, one of the most influential musicals to be a part of, a story that transcends entertainment and begs for conversation and reconciliation.
A gargantuan set and thoughtful lighting design are usually not essential to any production of WEST SIDE STORY, but this year's Summer Musical Theatre Experience does not disappoint in either field. Johnny Pettegrew's literal interpretation of the set results in seemingly choreographed scene changes. These changes take away from the tension lines that should be present in a production of WEST SIDE STORY, but as Director Erik DeCiccio abandons any desire for tension in his vision, the audience can buy into the beautifully moved set and fantastic lighting as professionally executed technical feats. Misty deSmit's intentional lighting will bring you to the smoky streets, highlighting moments accurately and emotively.
WEST SIDE has a reputation of being a show that changed musical theatre because of its use of dance to tell a story. The cast members were required to be able to sing, act, and dance, and in 1957, that was a first. Amber Daniels, choreographer of this production, reveals strength in her complex numbers. Paying homage to Jerome Robbins' original choreography from the film version of WEST SIDE, Amber's choreography is nostalgic and downright fun. Unfortunately, some of the numbers or 16-counts within numbers were at such a superior level that the cast cannot keep up. I would prefer simplified choreography that the entire cast can have dance well, rather than a handful of ensemble members who are featured as acceptable while the rest struggle to keep up.
This cast is a plethora of phenomenal high-school-aged talent in Jacksonville, Florida. You will be floored by the soaring voices and potential these students hold. All the praise in the world goes to these students for chasing their dreams and their parents for encouraging them to pursue art. There are several standout performances in this production. Brandon Mayes, who doubles as production assistant and the adult role of Doc, shines with care and concern for the characters. While his age is misleading (he is in no way aged with makeup or costume), Mayes keeps up with the heavy responsibility of being the only level-headed, invested adult in the script. His agenda, unlike the other three adults, is the best interest of the kids, and Mayes is delightful in his execution. Malik Bilbrew, a rising senior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, will bring you to tears in his first solo moment. His classical voice is pure and malleable and believable, and his gentle enactment of Tony is gut-wrenching. Show stealer Jay Sevilla, a rising junior at Douglas Anderson, embodies Anita completely. From her swagger to her enunciation, from her timing to her strength, Sevilla is an absolute force, and her arc alone is worth the price of admission to this production. She understands her character, inviting the audience to walk with her through what quickly became the story of Anita. In her heightened performance moment, the sassy and rebellious "America", Sevilla experienced a wardrobe malfunction that would have had me running off the stage in a panic. Instead, this 16-year old never flinched, carrying out the entire number with absolute perfection, as the fellow performer next to me and I sat, jaws dropped at her professionalism and improvisation, never breaking character over a moment that could have devastated the show. Sevilla is the real deal, and you should run to see her.
Cassidy Goldman is a stunningly classic Maria. Employing a heavy accent and adorable innocence, she maintains her delicate ambiance until her naivete turns to rage in the final scene. Goldman is a freshman at UNF, studying vocal music education, and her tender soprano will bring you bliss. The complicated role of Bernardo is played by Billy Lister, who accurately assumes the rough, edgy big brother character. Until he kills Riff, he is the quintessential Bernardo. Strangely, he is directed to take a victorious approach to Riff's death, throwing his arms in the air and circling center stage in triumph prior to Tony attacking him. This choice in direction for Bernardo is out of character and inaccurate with the plot line. It blurs the themes of the show, as well as Tony's intent in murdering Bernardo seconds later. Rather than condemning Tony's reaction in anger, we find a somewhat justified Tony, as Bernardo's lack of remorse is the focal point, and further, that Tony's actions are premeditated. I rarely will outwardly speak against a director's vision, but this decision alone alters the course of the audience's interpretation of every character in the show.
DeCiccio's vision is strikingly contrast to WEST SIDE's original themes. The Sharks are portrayed as dirty, greasy, cunning and dangerous, while the Jets are clad in pastels, clean cut, seemingly just teenage kids with a flair for trouble. It is as if the artistic team intentionally portrays these white young Americans as bored, a product of busy and messy families, completely missing that both parties are at fault, both parties can hate, both parties are responsible for their actions. Going for laughs instead of truth, shooting for comfortability instead of reality, the audience is found laughing off the Jets comedy rather than seeing their darkness in "Gee, Officer Krupke." Additionally, the entitled actions of Lt. Schrank are portrayed as humorous, bringing more laughter, rather than focusing on the one line that should be heard above all. Prior to "The Rumble" that leaves Riff and Bernardo dead, Schrank strolls into Doc's, coming down hard on the Sharks. The audience collapses into giggles as she reprimands a Jet with her eyes for taking a swig of her soda, and then snags a cookie on her way out the door. What is missed in the bookends of laughter is Schrank's misguided justification of her authority. "I've got a badge. What do you got?" This line should hush an audience. This show should make you uncomfortable. Tony's death should silence us. Instead, it was rushed, and the gunshot was so loud that the audience collapsed into nervous snickers of relief, missing the tragedy that lay at their feet as the cast was directed to all trample onstage in a moment that should demand silence and reflection.
This cast worked hard to create moving moments, and should be heralded for their desire to learn and grow. At the same time, the artistic team should be challenged to teach these impressionable minds the themes and truths of WEST SIDE STORY. We must see a depraved Jets gang, not a justified one. We must see an even playing field if we can ever hope for reconciliation across cultural and ethnic lines. We must teach our young performers that they hold in their hands the ability to teach an audience that while love is stronger, hate is often easier than peace. The great writers of our century have given us powerful stories to tell. The young talent in Jacksonville has the ability and drive to make art that changes us. No day but today (Larson). The world is wide enough (Miranda). There's a place for us (Sondheim).