New York Jets: From left, Joe Manganiello, Casey Hunter, Mark Weatherup, Chad Healy, Sean McAnaney and Nick Pike in the Talent Company’s West Side Story.
On one hand she quiets anxieties left over from when there
was some question whether the Talent Company or a rival troupe had the
rights to the show this year, as they were unavailable last year. And
without saying she is also signaling that along with
continuity—“Maria,” “Cool” and “Tonight” will be delivered with
plangent feeling—many things are going to be different, starting with
the players. They’re all about the age of the characters. Playing
Maria, Mary Vinciguerra is a 15-year-old soon-to-be junior at
Cicero-North Syracuse. Even the oldest of the youngsters, Tim Quartier
as Tony, is a junior at Ithaca College, which means he might actually
have been born in 1988.
West Side Story is the rare
example of a critical and popular hit that pleases highbrows as well as
thrilling the groundlings. The jazzy big beat carries the throbbing
excitement of rock’n’roll about the moment Elvis Presley emerged on the
scene. At the same time it has all the elements of an opera, such as
the complex, still-stunning quintet “Tonight” in the first act. In
recent years opera companies have embraced it, winning high praise for
the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras.
The current production, directed by Dan
Tursi, takes us back to the rough-and-tumble streets where the story
began. There are things to see here that could only be performed by
actors under age 21. “The Rumble,” for example, will rattle small
children who have never seen the show before.
As the program credits read, the original conception for West Side Story began
with choreographer Jerome Robbins. Daniel Lake, imported from Manhattan
for the fourth time to stage the dance numbers, has pulled the best out
of his youthful cast. We know early on how things are going to work
with the “Jet Song,” where seven fair-skinned street thugs swing into a
light-footed modern dance routine. This startled original audiences in
1957, many of whom were puzzled by the entire enterprise. Here we are
reassured that kids in period street clothes have the strength and
grace to take flight. Riff (Chad Healy) establishes a Cagneyesque
flippancy, asserting without being brutish.
All the dance numbers fill but do not
overflow the limited space of the New Times Theater’s stage at the
State Fairgrounds, notably the “Dance at the Gym,” but the comic
highlight is “Gee, Officer Krupke” in the second act. Not only are the
male dancers put through what looks like a high-speed gymnastic
routine, but Lake asks the kids to move up to a kind of musical
tumbling act. Impish Action (Casey Hunter) gets more than his share of
laughs, often with physical gags.
Lightcap has been scouting high school
performances and the Syracuse Area Live Theater Youth (SALTY) Awards
for some months and has much to show for her efforts. There’s not a
weak performer in the bunch, where the wrong person had to be cast as
often happens when the auditions come from only one school district.
What we have here, not to put too fine a word on it, is the creme de la creme of the region. Bernardo
(Maxwel Anderson), the top Shark, scowls threateningly. Chino (Navzad
Dabu), the rejected suitor, exudes a lethal threat. Diesel (Mark
Weatherup) looks tough enough to pummel any Shark. The Talent Company’s
own standards and director Tursi, renowned as a severe task master,
raise the whole to a professional sheen.
The three most important roles all
strike gold, starting with Tim Quartier’s Tony, who arrives as the most
tractable of the Jets. He brings a golden, muscular tenor that can leap
up to the highest notes in a falsetto for the anxious “Something’s
Coming.” Mary Vinciguerra as Maria must be childlike and mature at the
same time, frailer and more naive than any of the Shark girls, but a
sophisticated musician in the demanding, intricate duets, especially
“One Hand, One Heart.”
Bernardo’s sister Anita, the saucy
soubrette, is one of the greatest supporting roles in all of musical
theater, an opportunity for Maria Pedro to steal the limelight.
Offstage she’s a slender adolescent with short dark hair who looks as
though she might have just graduated from high school. With Jeanette
Reyner’s costumes and a frowsy wig she really becomes older and more
jaded than the others. Not only must Pedro’s Anita act more
convincingly than most of the cast, but she has to stop the show with
the foot-stomping mock habanera “America.” She also has to have the power to center the quintet in “Tonight.”
Admirable elsewhere in the large cast
are Nina Pelligra as the pugnacious tomboy Anybodys, Rachael Scarr as
soloist in the “Somewhere Ballet” and sometime gagster among the Jet
girls, and Cruz Gonzalez, the lover of Puerto Rico, in “America.” Adult
roles are often unrewarding in this show, but “Champagne” Lenny Bilotti
commands the scene as the bullying Lieutenant Schrank, just as Ben Elms
puts heart into Doc pleading for an end to the madness. Gennaro
Parlato’s fatuous school principal at the dance wins that character a
rare round of applause at his entrance.
While there is still some argument whether West Side Story is the greatest Broadway musical of the last 100 years (it did not win the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical, losing to The Music Man,
and there are some other contenders), it unquestionably has the best
score. Music director Nadine Cole honors Leonard Bernstein with a
six-player ensemble, including reeds, brass and strings. They are
thunderous in “The Rumble” and “The Taunting” (the near rape scene),
but also lyrical and tender, especially in the “Somewhere Ballet.”
Cindy Shippers’ lighting design defines sharp mood changes, and the
late Dan Dossert’s set design features wire fence that’s a bitch to
This production runs through Aug. 9. See Times Table for information.