By RJ Johnson
This season, TBA Theatre has declared it their “Shakes-year”, and with that theme in mind, last week opened West Side Story, based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and directed by Erin Dagon Mitchell, and the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.
The story is well known. Star-crossed teenaged lovers from opposing tribes leave a deadly wake while fighting for their right to be together. Based on Romeo and Juliet, the theatrical production and film are a favorite for performers and audiences alike. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, the rivals are street gangs the Sharks and the Jets. The setting is 1950’s New York City instead of fair Verona. Swords have been replaced by bottles, chains, and guns. While this tale has more upbeat music and choreography, the story is still filled with turbulent violence and heartbreak.
TBA Theatre knows what they are doing when it comes to set design and the gritty Manhattan feel that Megan Bladow, Cena Moody, David Fink, Rachel Androski, and crew have created are no exception. The quick changes kept the pace of the show moving along nicely, which is always appreciated during a two-and-a-half-hour production. Lighting design by Frank Hardy always matches the mood and helped set the tone of each musical number.
This production is a large undertaking at any level. With a cast of more than 40 actors that all are required to dance and sing. As likely the tallest member of the cast, Isaac Kumpula owned the role of Riff with his gentle, but serious presence. Petite Grace Fahrney as Anybodys was another standout who did not require size to be a large presence on stage. Her desperate attempts to get the guys in the gang to take her seriously were fun to watch and she was a great choice to take on the part. Other standouts among the Jets were Steven Brewer in the role of Action, and Diesel, played by Kaleb Robeson. These two men anchored many of the group performances but really showed talent in the hilarious number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” in the second act. The physicality of all actors in that performance goes down as a favorite moment in the show. Kae Hartman as Graziella was fun and adorable in this part, and able to add some real grit in the heartbreaking moments. Kirsten Swanson as Velma was brilliant. Swanson owned every single second that she was on stage and I found it hard to take my eyes off her. Local directors would be wise to continue to give her larger parts.
On the other side with the Sharks, Bernardo as portrayed by Anthony B.A. Cruz and the character of Chino by Amable Junior Rosa were fantastic, as would be expected from those lead roles. Cruz’s Bernardo was not evil, but instead seemed to have a righteous anger stemming from the racism and intolerance he encountered each day in America. Rosa is an accomplished dancer and singer, and confident in those moments, but it was wonderful to see his acting skills come out when Chino was fragile and scared.
The more feminine of the Sharks truly displayed some talent also. Andrea Cerna’s Anita was brash and bold, and held her own when it came to the challenging vocal duets that the role requires. Brianne Valdez, Lailani Cook, and Catie Bartlett as Rosalia, Consuela, and Francisca respectively were well cast, and each took their moment to shine as the sassy PR girls. Anna Cometa and Joseph Cruz were a great choice for leads on the “Somewhere” duet, and the rest of the cast and crew rose to the challenge of matching these two powerful singers. Every emotion of the show was captured in the staging and performance of this number. It is powerfully captivating, and each person involved should be proud.
The part of Tony was taken by Eli Fleener and he earned it every step of the way. From his brotherly chemistry with Kumpula, to his moments with Shane Mitchell’s Doc, he was Tony. He really dazzled when interacting with Maria, played to perfection by Summer Kuhns. You could feel the magnetic draw between these two actors, and each are extraordinary vocalists that should simply spend most of their time singing. In the program, Kuhns lists herself as an aspiring young vocal artist but I would be disappointed if she did not continue to take more theatrical roles. She is a breath of fresh air when it comes to lead actors for local Anchorage shows, and I want to see more of what she can do. From her innocent naivety in the first act, to her passion and then rage in the second Kuhns accomplished everything that the role requires and then made it her own.
There were slight missteps in the Sunday Matinee performance which could probably be explained away by fatigue after a long week of rehearsal and then opening a show. West Side Story is known for its tight choreography and precision delivery and there were a couple of moments when I noticed the actors almost unsure of their next move. In no way did it detract from the enjoyable production and strong performances. Shark and Mambo choreography by Andrea Cerna and Anthony Cruz, and Jet choreography by Kristin Fernandez added to the story and paid respect to the movie and original stage production. Additional choreography was provided by Megan Bladow. Costumes by Brigette Hoffman were thoughtful and appropriate. The music was handled well by Kade Bissell as conductor, with excellent vocal coaching from Nancy Caudill and music direction by Andrea Gardner.
West Side Story has always been a timeless classic for audiences and lovers of musicals. The racial tension that feeds the story seems even more topical in today’s political climate. This is even more apparent when you think about the fact that many of the Jets are probably first or second-generation immigrants themselves. This is a show that I have known for many years and this performance weighed on me in the best possible way. The attack on Anita in the Doc’s shop was difficult to watch because it was performed so well, and it is much more a reality that we face constantly. There were some children in the audience for Sunday’s matinee, and if you choose for the younger members of your family to see this show, be prepared to have some difficult conversations. TBA Theatre and the cast and crew have done something great with this musical, and with only one weekend left to experience it, you should get your tickets now.
Get tickets at www.tbatheatre.org