BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY at Rise Above Performing Arts Beyond Expectations
As I entered the theatre to pick up my tickets for Rise Above Performing Arts production of "West Side Story" I overheard Artistic Director, Jacob Ruscoe talking with a patron about the show. He said, "You really can't judge a musical by the age of the performers because a great show is a great show." Having seen their productions in the past I knew achieving this feat with this show would be a challenge and I was pleasantly surprised that they not only met but exceeded this challenge to produce a very impressive rendition of this beloved story.
"West Side Story" (Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) was created as a modern-day "Romeo and Juliet." The story explores a forbidden love between Tony and Maria whose nationalities place them on opposite sides of an ongoing feud between the Jets and the Sharks.
The set for the show was simplistic and not a high budget priority however, the enormous fire escape by scenic designer Steve Isaacson created a presence that was more than sufficient for the size of the stage. The scenic projections were a nice touch and helped create strong visuals for the various settings. The set changes were seamless. This combined with the lighting designed by Alex Newberry and Ethan Fuhrmeister and the amazing wardrobe created by Costume Designer, Jeanne Thompson, provided an experience that stimulated and captivated the audience.
Artistic Director, Jacob Ruscoe presented a strong cast that had clearly been trained as to the characteristics of the time period. The movements and accents of the cast were fantastic representations of what one would expect to see. Ruscoe also had his cast present some different and unique choices that kept the story fresh while keeping true to the storyline. The Finale of the show is open to a lot of artistic discretion and the choices made for this final scene were different than I had seen before and may be my new favorite ending for this show.
From the opening "Prologue" this cast will captivate you into the story. The energy of the group on this night was electric. This was enhanced with the exquisite choreography under the direction of Rachael Johnson. There were times where the numbers lacked a little cohesiveness, but the grace and style of the performers masked any deficiencies in their dancing. The sequence of "Somewhere" and "Precision and Nightmare" was of extremely high quality and a true highlight of this production.
Tony is played by Owen DeMaio. DeMaio does a great job of offering varied levels to his character. He is charming yet commands the stage which is impressive for an actor so young. There were a few times he struggled vocally but it in no way detracted from his performance. I really wanted him to go after the big vocal moments. He clearly has the ability and vocal range to do so. His moments with Maria were tender and he exhibited a clear chemistry with his counterpart. I would have liked to have seen a bit more passion between the duo as it is a story about a passionate love but that is my personal preference. The role is challenging, and DeMaio displayed a high degree of technical skill in his acting performance that endeared him to anyone who saw him perform.
Brianna Connelly plays the role of Maria. The complexity of this character cannot be understated. The role requires both a strong vocal and acting repertoire. I was left in complete awe by Connelly's performance. First, her voice is nothing short of perfect. From the moment she sings you move to the edge of your seat. While I felt she rushed slightly in "Tonight" she had complete control over every song and scene she was in. What was even more impressive was Connelly's acting prowess. While she was the strongest vocal singer of the group, she also delivered the best acting performance too. The final scene is difficult for the most seasoned of performers and Connelly had me in tears and I have seen the show upwards of 20 times. While this was my first time seeing this young lady perform, I am confident it will not be my last.
Bernardo (Dylan Ramon) and Anita (Briana Wilder) both delivered stellar performances as well. The renowned Shark couple provided the perfect spark to the show. Ramon in particular had a complete grasp of the character and made unique choices for his character which truly enhanced the story. Wilder's voice was strong as clearly demonstrated in "A Boy Like That." I would have like to have seen more eye contact with her fellow characters as Anita is strong and doesn't back down from anyone. While some of her lines were rushed, overall, she delivered a noteworthy performance and I see great promise in this young actress.
Riff played by Cooper Flerlage and Action played by Cameron Cabral could not have been more perfectly cast. Flerlage led the Jets with a firmness and authority that the role demands. His vocals were on target throughout the show and he established a clear bond with his fellow gang. Furthermore, Flerlage did a fantastic job with his choreography. It is hard to find young boys that can dance to the style of the show but Flerlage led the way for this impressive team of young men. Cabral has an energy that lights up the stage. His character's role is clearly defined and while it can easily be overplayed, Cabral stayed true to the role in every sense. He offered further vocal strength to the show under musical director, Joi Chapman. I would have liked to see a bit more silliness in "Gee, Officer Krupke," but Cabral's overall performance was superb.
"West Side Story" is a hard show to pull off. I appreciate this company's desire to always challenge its actors to do what most people probably think they can't. There was no question that the performers are youth, but it is a story about young people. Five minutes in it doesn't matter anyway because like I heard when I walked into the theatre, "a great show is a great show," and this was a great show.
"West Side Story" runs through January 11. Tickets and more information can be found at riseabovearts.com or by calling 941-702-4747
Photo Credit: Bonnie Telinger