“The Jets are gonna have their day–Tonight…The Sharks are gonna have their way–Tonight…” both gangs are ready to rumble and they’re gonna have it onstage at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, where “One More Productions”, the theater‘s Award-Winning musical producing company is presenting the groundbreaking musical “West Side Story”!
A contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare’s epochal tragic romance, “Romeo And Juliet”, this adaptation features a riveting score with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents, the Director for this new staging is “OMP” Co-Founder, Damien Lorton with Choreography by Shauna Bradford, Heather Holt-Smith and Alan Collins, while Lorton also serves as both the Musical Director and overseer of the live, seven piece off-stage band. Long considered one of the greatest love stories’ ever written, this seminal Broadway blockbuster is also regarded as one of modern theater’s utmost accomplishments. Updating this World-renowned Shakespearean tale from ‘Fair Verona’ to the mean-streets of New York City in the mid 1950’s, we’re are introduced to “Tony” and ‘Maria’–two young, idealistic lovers who find themselves caught, not between feuding feudal houses, but warring street gangs: the so-called ‘American’ “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks”. Their hapless struggle to survive in a world plagued by intolerance and the potentially dire violence it brings about, is one of the most innovative, heart-wrenching, and persistently-relevant musical dramas of our time.
Laurents’ book remains as powerful, poignant, and timely as ever, while Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score is widely regarded as one of the best ever written. (Little wonder that the folks at “One More Productions” proudly informed opening night’s audience that their first three performances were already completely sold out!) Lorton’s direction wisely puts the essential emphasis where it should be—largely on the relationship of our star-crossed lovers, “Tony” and “Maria”, with all the related characters and relationships serving to bolster and enhance this more central one. Yes, everyone has their time in the spotlight, but it all comes back to our ill-fated pair. Then again, Lorton’s direction could practically exemplify the term “insightful”—he knows this musical’s strengths (and even those of the classic tragedy it’s based upon.) In fact, he also shrewdly comprehends the relevance that illustrious play still has to audiences today—especially given all the latest headlines. “The show may be 60 years old,” Lorton informed first-nighters at the show’s opening; “but the story is over 500 years old!” To further emphasize this connection to the Shakespearean source-material, in the lobby is found a poster on which is printed the opening prologue of “Romeo And Juliet” that sets up the fundamental background of the tale, relating of the feud twixt the houses of “Capulet” and “Montague”. In addition, helped tremendously by the more intimate size of the venue, this closer proximity to the action increases the visceral-level responses one gets concerning all the high-stakes emotions and their urgency, along with all the vitriol and the valor. Simply put, if you’ve never attended a show at “The Gem Theatre”, now’s an outstanding reason to—you honestly couldn’t choose better!
To say the dances here are merely incredible or awe-inspiring would still be far too much of an understatement–indeed, it would not at all be an overstatement to assert that this is some of the very best dancing and choreography the “Gem” has seen since “One More Production’s” started staging shows there (–and that’s fifteen entertaining years now!) “When You’re A Jet” swells into a terrific group effort that introduces us to this rag-tag band of street ruffians and why being in their ‘gang” is so vital to them: “Without a gang, you’re an orphan” Riff explains; “with a gang, you walk in twos, threes, fours—and when your gang is the best, when you’re a ‘Jet’, Buddy boy, you’re out in the sun and home-free-home!” Alan Collin’s “Prologue”, jam-packed with athletic maneuvers is intense—letting us know right off (and in no uncertain terms) what we’re in for. In place of a formal overture, this rhythmic preface (with plenty of nods to Jerome Robbins) is a dancing game of one-upmanship, pointing to the tension between the gangs that will pervade the entire goings-on, with lots of high leaps, and fast turns. There’s an abundance of polished fight choreography to be seen too, copiously thrown in amongst the more ‘graceful’ movement. Then, Ms. Bradford’s “Dance At The Gym” is jivey—even it’s intro. is flowing, infused with hints of some elegant ballroom steps early on. Accentuated by flashing lights, who’d ever have thought Jazz combined with Ballet could ever be so hip? Count this one as a major highlight of Act One! She also strikes terpsichorean gold with the funny, frenetic “America”, with some lively “salsa”-tinged moves blending into increased—and heightened capering that encompasses grand-jetes, sprightly battements and peppery pirouettes (—not to mention plenty of dress flipping from all the girls involved.) This too, handily ranks as an exuberant showstopper!
Perhaps the most monumental of the First Act’s triumphs is the full-company’s “Somewhere Quintet”–the conclusion of which resulting in a striking stage-picture with “Riff” and “Bernardo”, fists clenched and standing boldfaced in the limelight, squaring-off, glowering at one another. The utter contentiousness between the two gangs is so palpable, you can practically inhale it! Meanwhile, “Tony” and “Maria” are set perched on balconies on opposite sides of the stage—directly across from one another. But the act doesn’t end there, instead proceeding non-stop into the actual “Rumble” which, for anyone even the least bit familiar with the story, knows what was initially agreed upon to be a bare knuckle-fist fight solely between each gang’s strongest fighter, swiftly escalates into a full-scale melee when both combatants bring switchblades, which will climactically wind-up with the participants dead—their bodies left alone on-stage bathed in blood-red light, accompanied only by the mournful-but-persistent toll of a requiem bell–and our “Tony” now a completely unintended murderer. House lights up!!!
Act Two commences back in the dress-shop where “Maria” works. Still blissfully unaware of what has transpired, she can’t contain the sheer happiness she feels, describing to her bewildered co-workers “I Feel Pretty”. Heather Holt-Smith also gives this bubbly interlude the top-flight treatment, infusing into it some airy, ‘strutting’ kind of footwork as befits the bouncy, effervescent melody and bright spirit. Holt is also the phenomenal talent behind the ballet that’s at the heart of “Somewhere”—arguably, the choreographic hallmark of the entire show. Once more initiating as a simple waltz betwixt “Tony” and “Maria”, they’re soon joined by a stunning dance-soloist who enlivens the activity with some bold balletic exchanges one after the other—including a few pristinely executed tour-jetes, some leaping tour en l’airs and other riveting moves. Meanwhile, a vocal soloist—placed upstage above and behind the couple, begins singing the masterful and moving lyrics. Soon, the full company enters and joins in a playful daisy-chain (–signifying a fleeting minute or two of hope to temporarily deflect from what has become a nightmare reality.) Sadly, this buoyant mood doesn’t last as the tragedy that closed the previous act is also acted out using the medium of dance, coming to a head in a surreal funeral march as “Riff” and “Bernardo’s” inert bodies are carried offstage by members of their respective gangs. Later, the controversial “Violation” scene where the “Jets” attack and attempt to ravish “Anita” when she’s trying to get a message to “Tony” on “Maria’s” behalf, is fittingly stomach-churning (–and something Lorton confides a long-time patron tried asking him to omit!) Afterward, she is understandably shattered and enraged, causing her to betray her young friend by telling the gang that “Maria” is dead. The lethal denouement happens suddenly and unexpectedly—and even if you know what’s gonna—and gotta happen—doesn’t mean it’s not still cataclysmic when you finally experience it. In the end, once Tony’s body is itself ceremoniously conveyed off stage by members of both gangs, only the four “Adults” in the cast remain—bathed in eerie crimson light, perplexed over how things could have gotten out of hand–and so quickly (You’ll even continue to smell the pervading aroma of sulfur from the gunshot as you exit the auditorium!)
As “Tony”, Brandon Taylor Jones takes a quantum leap in his on-going evolution from “Juvenile Lead” into “Leading Man” (and does so magnificently with this role!) His preliminary solo, “Something’s Comin’” is an A-Plus introduction to our “hero”, and Jones gives just the right touch of intensity to each phrase, with some grandly sustained notes (specifically in its “ride-out”.) He also astounds with his ‘sung-soliloquy’, “Maria”—caroling forth the overt joy “Tony” is experiencing via still more robust operatic notes. The by-product of this intensity is enriching and hypnotic—easily amplifying this one into a flawless First Act crowd-pleaser as well—the perfect lead into the famed “Balcony Scene”. At the other end of the affectivity spectrum, “Tony’s” desperate lament upon hearing that his “Maria” is gone, is real, genuine, and excruciatingly deep. Playing opposite him is Erika Baldwin—another long-proven talent on “The Gem” stage, who invests her substantial soprano voice and often-captivating acting talents into the role of “Maria”. This too, is a flawless fit for her sublime capabilities, with her foremost opportunity to electrify us unfolding in that “Balcony Scene” where the new lovers launch headlong into the lavish, unforgettable, “Tonight” (with Ms. Baldwin’s sumptuous voice wrapped around those dulcet tones, and bursting into some of Sondheim’s very best lyrics—ever!) As a duet, Jones matches her for brilliance and sensitivity–and his “outro” (or ‘coda’) to this ‘aria’ (–for that’s what it amounts to!) is overflowing with all-out—and contagious—jubilation! It’s always invigorating when a brilliant voice (or voices) meets compatibly brilliant lyrics and melody, and this is definitely the case with both Jones and Baldwin’s work here, wherein each gives the full-expression to the intense sentiments imbued into every passing refrain. “Te Adoro” they tell one another upon his leaving, before re-joining to ‘encore’ with: “Goodnight, goodnight, sleep well and when you dream—dream of me, tonight…” Their next duet, the stately and reverential romantic hymn, “One Hand, One Heart” affords a quieter instant of clarity–one which Erika practically brings tears to our eyes with “Maria’s wide-eyed sincerity and naivety, while Brandon himself is likewise every-bit as excellent; making it doubly bittersweet is the way they gently waltz in between the verses, culminating in some stupendous harmony! Then, in advance of the big, fateful Act Break they both excel with their contributions to the even weightier “Tonight Quintet”—involving the whole company. After intermission Erika gives us the spirited (–if short-lived–) mood-raiser, “I Feel Pretty”, an awesome, lighthearted little ditty whose breezy lyrics and bouncy tune are just as good a fit for her diverse song-styling talents. This one too, rises to a zesty group endeavor when the other ‘shop girls” join in, just ahead of things getting…well, ‘darker’, as exemplified by “Maria’s” unrestrained anguish when she hears the news about her brother—and worse, that the one she loves so deeply is to blame. (It’s as devastating to watch as it is for her to enact it.)
“OMP” Co-Founder, Nicole Cassesso herself adds still another amazing portrayal to her already creditable retinue of those she dazzled us with—this time as “Anita”. Although leading the First Act’s “America” is her initial chance to “Wow” us (–after giving it a fittingly spirited and spicy introductory ‘ride in”,) it’s really in Act Two where Nicole’s most shining moment occurs with “A Boy Like That”. Filled with seething fury, revulsion, and then ultimate surrender, both she and Baldwin impart such raw feeling by virtue of their impeccable phrasing and heart-wrenchingly authentic emotional investment into its verses. It could even be firmly argued that this stirring duet is one of the best and most impactful segments of the entire production! Race Chambers is also remarkable as “Tony’s” best pal (–“From womb, to tomb; sperm to worm” they swear,) and the leader of “The Jets”– “Riff”. Gifted with a truly mind-boggling dancing ability, he shows this off time and again—even making a phenomenal leap from the upper level of the set onto centerstage to kick-off “When You’re A Jet” (–What an entrance!)
“The ‘Sharks’ bite hard,” he reminds Tony when trying to convince his comrade of the importance of having him be present at a pre-rumble “War Council” with their adversaries. Acting-wise, Chambers favors a smoldering, ‘fast-on-the-trigger’ fervor, which he also puts to full use when leading “Cool”, followed by his marshaling this into becoming another explosive dance intermezzo (—again worthy of Robbins’ original, boasting some virtuosic leaps, pirouettes, and full-layouts performed in unison by the gang and their ladies.) Danny Diaz, (another recognized talent for “One More Productions”,) also provides haunting support as “Bernardo”—rivalling “Riff’s” barely-subdued vehemence and burning resentment at every turn: “Look–I don’t go for that pretend crap you all go for in this country,” he growls as they prepare to do battle; “Every one of you hates every one of us, and we hate you right back. I don’t drink with nobody I hate! I don’t shake hands with nobody I hate! Let’s get at it!” Although he makes his tightly-wound (–at times even saturnine,) personality felt right from the outset in “The Prologue”, it’s a bit surprising to realize that, beyond a few lines in the “Tonight Quintet”, he doesn’t have any pivotal ballads or songs to speak of; this doesn’t in anyway mean though, that Diaz’ performance is lacking—just the contrary! In sagaciously keeping much of “Bernardo’s” volatility just under the surface, it makes it (and him) seem even more resolute and intimidating. He may not have asked for any of this trouble—but he’s sure as shootin’ not going to be a victim of any of it either!
Strong presences are also contributed by Nick Seigel as “Action”, the default leader of the “Jets” once “Riff” is no longer around. If not exactly as their prime focus, Seigel’s influence is certainly felt near enough to them in such group undertakings as “When You’re A Jet”, “The Dance At The Gym”, “Cool” and of course, the “Rumble” itself. In this same way, Hunter Nelson as “Snowboy” delivers equally commendable work leading (or should that be ‘conducting’,) the sarcastic “Gee, Officer Krupke”: “The trouble is he’s lazy! The trouble is he drinks! The trouble is he’s crazy! The trouble is he stinks! The trouble is he’s growing—the trouble is he’s grown!” the “Jets” conjointly grumble; “Krupke, we got troubles of our own!” Stand-out support is also supplied by Kerry Pelekoudas as “Anybodys”—the “Jet’s” lone female (and among the toughest and most unforgiving,) member/mascot. Refreshingly, on this occasion “Anybodys” has been given somewhat more to do, hence more stage-time and Ms. Pelekoudas, wonderfully rises to any additional challenges. (For the dance at the gym, she even dresses in a suit!) Jon Michell also grates on all the right nerves (–and in all the best ways) as “Lt. Schrank”. More than your ‘stereotypical’ bigoted New York City Cop with a decided ‘cultural bias’, he makes plain through every gesture and sneer that, although he’s completely against–maybe even ‘revolted’ by–the “P.R.s”, he’s also brisk to remind the “Jets” that they too, are only one accident of birth away from being “Ellis Island” rejects themselves: “Get smart you stupid hoodlums!” he spits when they won’t tell him where they plan to hold their “rumble”; “I oughta fine you for litterin’ the streets! You oughta be taken down to the station house and have your skulls mashed to a pulp! You and the tin-horn immigrant scum you come from!” John Gillies also does a laudable job as “Shrank’s” chief lackey and general-purpose pit-bull, “Officer Krupke”, painting him as a none-too-bright (but oh, so quick tempered) beat-cop who doesn’t have much use for the young people around him—regardless of their ethnicity! Seriously worthy of note as well are Carmella Manapat as the breathtaking “Somewhere” vocal soloist, while Kady Lawson is an absolute sensation as that number’s dance soloist.
The multi-level, mock-ramshackle set design by Wally Huntoon (with construction by Mendenhall Productions,) is itself a splendid sight to behold, with exaggerated angles leaning in toward each other, painted in grimy black and white, with patches of “rust”, as to suggest an ever-looming, all-encompassing inner-city slum-scape from which there is no escape. They even utilize the theater’s own balcony section for the iconic “balcony” (–here a fire-escape,) scene. If the set is kept more subdued though, the real color is apparent in Ramzi Jneid and Sarah Timm’s vivacious 50’s era costumes. Counting among them are the women’s pastel (sometimes silk) party dresses in varied hues like pink, lavender, baby-blue—and even shocking red (a color that’s very evident in many aspects of this production.) These make episodes like “The Dance At The Gym” and “America” standout all the more, particularly when contrasted with the boy’s similarly vibrant sport-coats (like Tony’s black-and-green check-pattern jacket for example;) or even the guy’s vintage urban wear, which include bowling shirts, dungarees (suitably rolled up at the ankles,) leather motorcycle jackets, and Bernardo’s faded black-denim vest. Speaking of black, nothing can out-do Anita’s ‘scandalous” black under-things with coordinated black-lace robe she wears for her verses of the “Tonight Quintet” (–Yowza!!!) Topping all of these off (literally) are Emmy Fry’s correspondingly clever and period appropriate Wig Designs.
So “Vàmonos” over to “The Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove, where they’re “gonna rock it—they’re gonna jazz it up and have ‘em a ball!” Having opened on Saturday, July 13th, “West Side Story” is scheduled to play through Sunday, August 11th, 2019, at “The Gem Theatre” located at: 12852 on historic Main Street in Garden Grove CA. Showtimes are: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. (Please note: the will be two additional Saturday Matinees at 2:00 PM on July 20th and August 3rd.) Tickets may be obtained by logging onto: www.onemoreproductions.com or by phone at: (714) 741-9550 X 221. Discounted tickets are available for Seniors, and Children (12 years old and under,) while special “Student Rush” Tickets are also available for Thursday and Friday performances, and may be purchased thirty minutes prior to curtain with a valid student identification card.
Production Stills By Ron Lyon, Courtesy Of Shoko Araki And “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Nicole Cassesso, Shoko Araki, Ron Lyon, Shauna Bradford, Heather Holt-Smith, Alan Collins And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Gem Theatre” and “One More Productions” 2019 Staging Of “West Side Story” For Making This Story Possible.