BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY: A Big Story for Omaha's South High Magnet School
Omaha's South High Magnet School with Rebecca Noble, curriculum specialist for Visual Performing Arts, has once again tackled a big story requiring cast diversity with dance, vocal, and acting abilities. Under the direction of Michal Simpson, they have combined high school and college students and veteran performers from the local community, and successfully woven together a tapestry of ethnicities, talents, and experience. I always look forward to these productions of South High Magnet School as they represent a broad cross section from our city. These individuals have worked hard to bring the timeless WEST SIDE STORY to life as a united group effort.
The musical WEST SIDE STORY had many starts, stops and variations in its production history. Loosely based on star crossed Romeo and Juliet, the story found its home in the upper West Side in New York City. Based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, it was adapted for stage by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Negativity on the part of financial backers and professionals in the field slowed down and almost halted the process. On top of production woes, casting was challenging as they had to find actors who could sing difficult parts, dance well, and look like teenagers.
Language was also problematic for the writers. In the 1950's it was uncommon for coarse talk and f-bombs to litter the stage. Consequently, Laurents invented his version of "street talk," which included some familiar, but corny phrases such as "Daddy O" or "Buddy Boy," and some nonsensical phrases strung together to simulate street talk. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.
Choreography in WEST SIDE STORY is huge. It was said that the show had more dancing in it than any previous Broadway show. Robbins was initially reluctant to take on the project, but eventually agreed and was paid off with a Tony Award for Best Choreography. Time magazine wrote that dance and gang warfare were more compelling than the love story and noted that the show's "putting choreography foremost, may prove a milestone in musical-drama history". Certainly, when I think of WEST SIDE STORY, I think of the big dance numbers and the rumble scene first. This is where the action is. Choreographer Roxanne Nielsen rose to the challenge with lively and engaging dances and snappy movements. Fight choreographer Kevin Barratt did a commendable job making the violence look as close to real as young actors can do.
The fight scenes are arguably the most compelling in this show. The Jets (whites) are battling the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) for control of the streets. Most of the characters are energized with acute tension. Kate Madsen shines as Anita when she goes to Doc's to warn Tony and faces the terrifying threat of mob violence and racism. Her vocals are spot on, strong and beautiful with a gritty edge that reflects Anita's inner fight and strength of character.
Maria (Isabel Gott) and Tony (Payton Johnson) are largely removed from this tension. They are in love and the streets are not their battleground. They want to make love, not war. Therefore, their movements are more deliberate and less intense; their songs are slower and more lyrical. Tonight and One Hand, One Heart reveal that their thoughts are only of each other. Gott's innocence is touching. Her crystal clear soprano rises high and sweet while Johnson's full, pleasing tone fills the house with the confidence of optimistic youth.
There are humorous moments told through song. The Jets prompted by likable Action (Julian Hinrichs) sing their disdain for adults such as LT Shrank (Brett Foster) and Officer Krupke (Travis Wilcox) in the comical Gee, Officer Krupke. Anita (Kate Madsen) and Rosalia (Bri Davis) argue the merits of America versus Puerto Rico in the equally funny song America. The music is catchy and memorable.
Music director Tyler Gruttemeyer conducts a dozen musicians who play Bernstein's score remarkably well.
The adult actors lend seasoned experience to the show. Keith Allerton deftly handles the role of Doc, the owner of the cafe. His is a sympathetic role; an adult who cares but seems powerless to stop the violence until things go too far. Brett Foster is equally believable as LT Shrank, an adult who isn't just racist: he is contemptuous of all young people, feeling free to insult their parents in the hopes of getting a reaction. Jose Galindo as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, adds authenticity without overplaying his part.
There is much to like in this beautifully dark musical. There are social issues that never seem to go away. There are tragic consequences for bad decisions. But there are also threads of budding love, friendship, and reconciliation. WEST SIDE STORY is the perfect story for our city. Noble and Simpson with their cast and crew have told it beautifully.
Show times: June 20, 21 at 7:30 pm and June 22 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available on eventbrite or at the door.
Omaha South High Magnet School, 4519 South 24th Street, Omaha, NE