Flat Rock – West Side Story is a fast-paced, vibrant spectacular at Flat Rock Playhouse, running for the rest of this month.
FRP Producing Artistic Director Lisa K. Bryant directs. Bryant, dance choreographer Matthew Glover, fight choreographer Bill Munoz and “intimacy” choreographer Laura Rickard hit home runs. Their leads and ensemble cast delivers in dancing, singing and acting. The seven-piece orchestra led by Music Dir. Ethan Andersen is outstanding as usual, along with sound and lighting.
This is the most-requested musical in the playhouse’s public survey in 2019, FRP head Bryant noted. The musical score is by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by fellow legend Stephen Sondheim.
Dennis Maulden’s set sets the tone. Urban fencing is the curtain. Shifting set changes enhance smooth scene transitions. At one point, angelic ballet dancers exit then romantic leads Tony (Brandon Keith Rogers) and Maria (Marilyn Caserta) arrive sitting on a gliding pedestal.
The timeless script reflects New York City’s dismal, racially-divided West Side contrasting to rising suburbanization, in 1957 when the musical debuted on Broadway. The hot jazz and acrobatic dancing capture gang members’ zest and aggression.
Tony and Maria
Polish Anton (“Tony”) and Puerto Rican Maria buck peers’ prejudice, bitterness and violent urges to share trust and tenderness. Rogers superbly exudes Tony’s gentleness, unrelenting love for Maria. He idealistically and naively thinks others will accept their Romeo and Juliet-like match. Maria is realistically more suspicious about reactions. She joins Tony’s dream for a quieter country life. Maria learns to stand up for her evolving emotions.
Both soprano leads sing exceptionally well. In the 1961 hit movie, Natalie Wood acted as Maria with Marni Nixon’s voice dubbed into songs. In Steven Spielberg’s film released last December, Rachel Zegler, 20, acts and sings as Maria.
In “Tonight,” Maria and Tony’s romantic yearnings juxtapose with gang members’ angst. The cast crisply sings and dances on other signature numbers – in taking turns showing off moves at the community dance, in uplifting “America” and playful “I Feel Pretty” by Shark girls, Tony’s “Maria” serenade, and Riff’s intense beat poetry rapping of “Cool.”
Claire Griffin is FRP’s off-screen soloist on “Somewhere,” the inspiring romantic ballad. Dancers line up, converge then spread. They do serene ballet with a heavenly backdrop hinting of immortal togetherness.
Caserta is a Cuban-Italian-American from Miami, Fla., based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is 5-foot-3. Much taller Rogers grew up in Charlotte. He is based in L.A. Rogers has a self-proclaimed “pretty boy” voice.
Caserta booms over taller, super-slender Anita (Gabriella Enriquez) when they sing emotions at each other. Anita is furious her boyfriend Bernardo (Eddie Maldonado) just died in a rumble — at the hands of Maria’s new boyfriend Tony.
Tony, once a champion boxer, is a pacifist. But he spontaneously avenged Sharks gang leader Bernado’s fatal stabbing of Jets leader Riff (J. Taylor Wright). Riff gets distracted by Tony trying to prevent the rumble then Riff from stabbing Bernardo down. After Tony stabs Bernardo and both gang leaders are mortally wounded, other gang members pair off in a melee. Stage combat is brisk.
Maria is initially upset at Tony for killing her brother, but soon forgives him. Her forgiveness out-sings Anita’s vengeful anger. But after the Jets rough up Anita in their hangout, she unleashes a dastardly lie. Enriquez is a convincingly heartless, sassy and manipulative Anita.
Gang Leader Gems
The rival gang leader actors fit their roles physically and in personality much better than their film counterparts. Maldonado embodies Bernado’s fierce machismo, and unyielding refusal for peace. “I hate you right back!,” he tells Riff in refusing to shake his hand about the one item they agree on — terms of the rumble. This FRP Bernado clearly is his side’s best fighter.
Wright is the right choice for Riff. He blends toughness with much swagger and smart-aleck charisma is soaring atop the Jets’ stratosphere. “I want the Jets to be number one, to hold the ‘sky’ (urban turf),” he proclaims. Wright later excels singing a song’s lead.
The Sharks include Pepe (John Paul LaPorte), Indio (Henrique Sobrinho), Luis (Jelania Bell) and Chino (Daniel Powers). Chino adores Maria. He has a good job. Maria’s family wants her to marry him. But she has no feelings for this reserved nerd. Chino like Tony is a reluctant warrior. There is a fateful convergence of the Tony-Chino-Maria triangle. In a pivotal moment, Powers brilliantly shivers in shame and acts catatonic.
Jet gangsters outdo their film counterparts in comedic antics. A-Rab (Colin Lemoine) and Big Deal (Louis Hansen) are jovial. Big Deal is beaten by the Sharks early on. But he is a resilient survivor. Hansen is perhaps the slickest Jet dancer. He has zaniest facial expressions. Hansen is the assistant director.
The Jets ham it up well in mocking policeman Krupke (Joe Ippolito) in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The audience cheered loudest for that frolicking number last Friday. Action (P.J. Palmer) leads that song and dance number, as he apparently takes over the Jets after Riff’s death. Baby John (Cole Reasoner) is the baby-faced Jet. Anybodys (Alex Pouloutides) is a tomboy Jet wannabe, who shrewdly pulls dazed and guilt-ridden Tony away from police apprehension after the rumble.
Diesel (Aaron Patrick Craven) is the jumbo Jet. He is Riff’s pick for the one-on-one fight to decide who rules the neighborhood. Bernardo instead wants to attack Tony for dancing with Maria, and calls him “chicken.” Tony will not fight. Riff steps in form him. Riff and Bernardo break their rumble rules by wielding jackknives.
Jet girlfriends are Graziella (Brianna Haston), Velma (Lexis Danca), Minnie (Kaitlyn Harrington). Shark girlfriends include Rosalia (Nicollete Hernandez), Consuela (Marissa Barragan), Teresita (Michel Vasquez) and Francisca (Mady Bec Rogers). They all dance well.
FRP vet Scott Treadway is Doc, Tony’s peace-urging father figure. He runs the drug store where Tony works and Jets hang out. Rita Moreno played the store owner in the new movie. She was feisty Anita in the ‘61 film.
Bill Chameides is brassy Det. Schrank. Lanky Ippolito is heavy-handed Krupke. Bob Trisolini plays Glad Hand, dance supervisor who gets the youths to circle randomly to find partners.
Tony and Maria match up as dancers. Magic sparks. Balcony rendezvous follow. Tragedies strike. Ultimately, the gangs unite in a common task.
West Side Story runs through July 30. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees on those days except Fridays. Tickets cost $45-$65. To buy tickets, call the box office at 693-0731, or check https://purchase.flatrockplayhouse.org/overview/3002/.