West Side Story (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)


How lucky am I to be able to see full productions of the two biggest Broadway hits of the 1957-1958 season all in the same week? One night I get to see The Music Man at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, and the next night I’m enjoying Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story! Both are now revered as classics, were made into very popular and faithfully adapted films, and for well over fifty years have been performed thousands of times a year all over the country from high schools to regional theatres. One can’t really be considered a fan of musicals without becoming acquainted with these evergreens; their songs pop up all the time in popular culture, and chances are you’ve heard some of them even if you didn’t know from where they originated.

Photo: David Heasley

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was the big Tony Award winner in 1958 and the longer-running hit, but West Side Story, with a searing Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by the up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography courtesy of the legendary Jerome Robbins, has emerged as the more serious classic. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action has been transplanted to the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1950s as rival gangs, the Jets (who are white) and the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican), fight for dominance. Caught in the crosshairs are Tony, a sometime member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony and Maria meet at a school dance, fall in love, and try to stop the gangs from fighting to discover things will only get worse before they begin to get better. With nearly every now song an established classic (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “America” to name but a few), West Side Story continues to capture the heart of each new generation, thanks to the 1961 film and the play’s continued popularity. This current production, featuring Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Summer Pre-Professional Company of performers ages sixteen to twenty-two, is about as engaging and rousing a production as one is likely to find, “pre-professional” or not.

Photo: David Heasley

These Jets and Sharks dance, fight, and spit with equal intensity (stage combat aided by William Goldsmith), and each performer appears fully cocked and ready to attack anyone who gets in their way. I remember some snickering from my classmates when we watched the movie in high school during the opening dance sequence; no one would dare to scoff at these Jets and Sharks, especially once they see them believably kick and punch each other to the ground! It’s interesting to note that all but two of the Jets and Sharks are wearing identical black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, a nice visual reminder that they have so much more in common than they seem to realize.

Photo: David Heasley

As sweet and innocent as Tony (Andy Simmons) and Maria (Elizabeth Blanquera) are in this production, they can’t help but appear less exciting when stacked next to the excellent supporting cast: Austin Ryan Backus as Riff exudes confidence and swagger; Matthew J. Mayer II makes an intense Bernardo; Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo is a firecracker as Anita but also heartbreaking; Will Thompson plays Doc like a wise, concerned older brother, making an impact in a part usually ignored; and Charlotte Brown should be watched closely in the small role of Rosalia, especially for her hilarious facial expressions during the dance at the gym.

Photo: David Heasley

The only serious flaw in this production occurs during the ballet (which is not in the film). This ballet leads into “Somewhere” and begins strongly with Riff and Bernardo reappearing after the violent end of the first act; then, inexplicably, a little boy climbs out of Maria’s bedroom window, down over the fence, sings “Somewhere” at Tony and Maria (now dressed in just a slip), and then scampers back up to from where he came. Though staged a bit differently, this addition of the character “Kiddo” and reassignment of the song was made by original book writer Arthur Laurents for the 2009 Broadway revival he directed; it was widely criticized then, and it’s inclusion in this production is a glaring sore spot. It has nothing to do with the ability of the kid playing Kiddo; the moment comes off as schmaltzy and like a lecture to the characters, bringing to mind this verse in Isaiah: “And a little child shall lead them.” I began to wonder why a little kid was squatting in Maria’s bedroom and if someone should let her know.

Photo: David Heasley

Luckily everything gets back on track when some of the Jets sing “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” far funnier with lyrics and gestures that were greatly toned down for the film. This is one of several scenes in which Jordan Feliciano as Baby John is a riot, donning a mop on his head and squeaky voice. As humorous as this sequence is, Ms. Gutierrez del Arroyo’s “A Boy Like That” that follows it is conversely serious and impassioned. Songs were moved around for the film to provide a more consistent tone for that medium, but the flow of the original play works marvelously on the stage.

Photo: David Heasley

Director David Bahgat incorporates many design elements from the film (unavoidable with its popularity) and expands upon them, the Jets costumed in blue and yellow and the Sharks in purple and red; the lighting is also used in this color motif effectively without being too obvious. Mr. Bahgat keeps everything moving at a brisk pace (save for the aforementioned break in the ballet), and he guides his cast into making each line sound like it is theirs and theirs alone. I’ve seen several productions were the actors copy each line reading as it was done in the film; that isn’t the case here at all, and many times so much more humor and character comes across because of it. He keeps his actors moving all around the audience, maintaining an immediacy that a lesser director wouldn’t bother trying to create. The marvelous set designed by Jeffrey Gress represents all of the different locations needed for the story, elements of which extend out around the audience, making this what I would consider an environmental staging; a low chain link fence separates the audience from the cast on the left and right sides, Doc’s storefront is between the center and right seating areas, actors often enter the center rows of the audience and sit alongside them, and (depending on where one is sitting) Chino (Frank Ruiz) can be seen stealthily sneaking down the alley between the center and left section of seats leading up to the intense climax.

Photo: David Heasley

The four-piece band led by Zac DelMonte kicks into high gear during the “Tonight” quintet and rumble, though the limited orchestration takes a little time to get used to at the start of the show. Nicolette Montana does a fine job of recreating iconic moments from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, adding and changing bits here and there to suit the space and production demands; aside from a moment during the prologue when the Jets shout “Ha!” and jut their hands out into the audience, Ms. Montana’s work is commendable and adds so much to this overall splendid production.

Photo: David Heasley

Except for a few missteps (mostly minor), Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story is nearly impossibly good. With action occurring from all sides of the theatre and an energetic cast that knows this show like seasoned pros, this West Side Story is one to see no matter how many times you’ve seen the play or movie before. Most of the performers appear to be exactly in the right age range of the characters they are playing, from late teens to early twenties, but this is the exception rather than the rule when compared to the film or Broadway productions of this show. The “us verses them” struggle between the Jets and the Sharks is still relevant today; one need only to watch the daily news to see how fear of the “other” continues to incite violence and be used politically to pit people against one another. 

*** 3/4 out of ****

West Side Story continues through to July 17th at Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/west-side-story.html

Grease (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

It can’t be easy to stage a play after a film version of it is a huge success; The Sound of Music and West Side Story are two properties for which I always think of the film versions when they are mentioned even though I know that they were Broadway plays first. Grease is another of those plays that is difficult to disassociate from its 1978 film version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. It seems like one has to either copy the film or go in a completely different direction when staging some of these properties now; the best solution is probably to be somewhere in the middle. And that’s where I think Columbus Children’s Theatre production of Grease succeeds – it’s familiar enough to be recognizable to fans of the film but different enough that it exists as its own experience. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 

Grease, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, premiered in Chicago in 1971. It moved to Broadway in 1972 and ran for a then-record eight years but won no awards. Loosely based on Jacobs’s memories of growing up, Grease is set in 1959 at Rydell High School and focuses on two packs of teenagers: the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds. The play is a series of vignettes and character songs loosely strung together by a thin book about summer lovers Danny and Sandy and the pressures they face in high school with their friends. There are many memorable songs such as “Summer Nights,” “It’s Raining on Prom Night,” “Freddy My Love,” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”; the film version introduced “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “Sandy,” and the (dreadful) title song. The film songs are now often included in stage productions of the show as they are in this one.

 

The band is comprised of five members that play on a platform above the actors, sounding good but restrained. The set looks like a gym floor with lockers along the wall; a rather incongruous combination but one that works well enough to evoke the high school setting. The show opens with a serious of intense colored lights alternating over the set that reminded me of the prologue in the film of West Side Story with the line drawing of the city that had a background of constantly changing colors. When the cast appears to open the show, it is funny to see the girls with so much makeup on and such big hair. They look more like divorcées in their 40s than high school girls, but the film was no different.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Ricky Locci is charismatic and sexy as Danny Zuko, completely believable as the leader of the pack. It takes a special performer to sing and dance but still look cool, and Ricky is just that. He knows just when to smile and when to make it all disappear; Ricky is just the kind of guy who has “got it” and is fine with showing it.

Jordan Shafer is delightful as a redheaded Sandy Dumbroski and thankfully doesn’t try to be Olivia Newton-John. Sandy seems to have more of a personality in the show, or maybe that is just what Jordan brings to the part. She’s likable without being cloying (that’s left for the character of Patty Simcox), and she sings with confidence and feeling. There are moments when I felt like she had more to say but that the lines weren’t in the script; Jordan is only limited by the book of the show.

Jordan and Ricky are great as a couple; they have chemistry and seem to genuinely like each other, something difficult to fake. They have the most important parts in the show, and it’s unfortunate that they don’t have more scenes to interact together like the characters do in the movie.

Kelly Hogan makes for a wry Rizzo, showing just enough attitude to not be a total bitch. Her dark wig, scarf, and sunglasses evoked Jackie O to me more than 50s high school student, but it was still fun to see her strutting and bossing the Pink Ladies around. She belts a great “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” as a retort to Sandy, something I wasn’t expecting as this differs from (and works better than in) the film.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
I have an issue with Jared Bradley as Kenickie. On one hand he looks the part, trying to copy Danny’s hair and cool factor, and Jared even looks similar to Ricky in the face. The problem is that he takes a few of his dance moves a bit too far in the wrong direction; when he reached up and arched his back at the end of “Greased Lightnin'” I was reminded of when Jennifer Beals pulled the cord and the bucket of water splashed down on her in Flashdance. Kenickie is supposed to be second-in-command to Danny, but Jared has his jeans up nearly to his navel and comes off as the least cool of the T-Birds.

A surprising standout in the cast is Charlotte Brown in the small role of Cha Cha, Kenickie’s date and Danny’s dance partner at the dance. She only has one scene, but she arrives with gusto, hair teased and all loud and pouty. She’s really hilarious, hamming it up in just the right way to let everyone know exactly who they were dealing with: trouble!

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Director David Bahgat did a serviceable job at keeping things moving and interesting, and he mostly staged scenes so that the action was clearly visible from any seat, important as the theatre has eight rows to the left and right but only three rows in the center. Bahgat doesn’t always seem to know what to do with his cast in scenes not in the film to reference, such as the opening title song that is animated in the movie. It was a lukewarm opening when the cast came out and basically engaged in what appeared to be a large ring-around-the-roses sing a-long. Another odd choice is when he had Sandy face away from the center rows for part of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” just so he could have her run forward and turn around dramatically later in the song.

I had heard that the stage version of Grease had been revised and sanitized over the years; apparently it premiered in a far more raw and vulgar version in 1971. This Grease was fairly tame too, perhaps with a bit more cursing than the film but nothing kids haven’t heard before. The sexual jokes seemed to fly right over the kids in the audience as well they should, but the “Mooning” song they found particularly hilarious.

If there is one thing that really limits the show it is the book. Very little depth is given to any of the characters, and this is one area in which the film is far superior. Songs were cut or given to the band to play at the dance competition in the film to make room for more interaction between the cast, something sorely missing in the stage version by comparison. Still, the cast is mostly quite good and the music very hummable; Columbus Children’s Theatre production of Grease is worth seeing if only for those attributes, and I look forward to seeing future productions by this company (this was my first). Even if I found the overall show a little ho-hum, coming alive in some key scenes, I’m sure this production will have many fans. If you like the movies of Grease or Mamma Mia, you’ll be sure to have a good time.

**/ out of ****

Grease continues through to August 16th at 512 Park St., and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/grease.html