REVIEW: ‘West Side Story’ Is a Knockout Hit at Northport’s Engeman Theater

West Side Story
West Side Story at John W. Engeman Theater.

“West Side Story” had the audience on its feet applauding wildly and shouting bravos after its first Saturday night performance at the John W. Engeman Theater. The musical saga of star-crossed lovers whose Manhattan romance is doomed by cultural discord is not only simply sensational, but the perfect choice for the Northport theater’s 50th production.

The show itself has some stellar history too. “West Side Story” first graced Broadway in 1957. It brought together an extraordinarily talented creative team: composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright Arthur Laurents, and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. According to Larry Stempel’s Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, the production ushered in a new era by blurring the lines between musical theater and opera while adding social commentary to the mix.

Showcasing what many consider to be Bernstein’s finest work, the musical also gave these legendary artists the opportunity to stretch themselves as never before. It was the first time that Sondheim ever wrote lyrics for a Broadway production; for Laurents, it was his first Broadway libretto.

If the story line of forbidden love gone terribly awry sounds familiar, it should. “West Side Story” is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which tells of the tragedy ensnaring the romantically linked offspring of two feuding noble families, the Montagues and Capulets. Fast-forward another four centuries to the 1950s, and “West Side Story” is the urban version.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of the intoxication and blind innocence of first love countered by senseless rivalry and the unceasing desire for revenge still rings true today. Under Igor Goldin’s masterful direction at the Engeman Theater, the cast brings this New Age Romeo and Juliet, this blend of light and dark, hope and heartache, comedy and despair, to glorious fruition.

Set in a blue-collar neighborhood in the Upper West Side in 1957, the venue is far from pretty, yet this forsaken piece of turf bound by brick walls and chain-link fences is the subject of intense rivalry between two street gangs, the Jets, the established white ethnics, and the Sharks, the Puerto Rican newcomers.

A dance at a local gymnasium brings the warring gangs together on what is supposedly neutral territory. As the Jets and Sharks assert their superiority by alternately usurping the dance floor, something magical happens. Amidst the whirlwind of frenetic movement, Tony, a Jet, and Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the Shark’s leader, spot each other from across the room and are drawn together like magnets. Both are immediately smitten, but Bernardo has brought Maria from Puerto Rico so she could marry his friend, Chico.

While his friends are riveted in the gritty here and now, Tony, played by Zach Trimmer, is dreaming of a better life. Carl Sagan once spoke of the optimistic human belief that there is something marvelous around the corner yet undiscovered, a vision that Tony brings to life when he sings “Something’s Coming.”

Later that night, Maria (Samantha Williams) stands on her tenement apartment’s fire escape with Tony below, and the chemistry is palpable. His serenade, “Tonight,” is a joyous prelude to the uncharted territory that is love. Young Williams’ mellifluous singing voice is astounding. Trimmer renders “Maria,” so tenderly that he makes it a fitting tribute to the transformative power of love.

Shakespeare liked to alternate between moods in his plays, and “West Side Story” follows his lead, with romance giving way to comedy–before the tragedy you know is coming.

In the sardonic song, “America,” Rosalia (Ashley Pérez Flanagan) extols the virtues of Puerto Rico, while the other Shark Girls–Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Karli Dinardo), Francisca (Victoria Casillo) and Marguerita (Ashley Marinelli) counter with wisecracks. The girls are dressed in gorgeous jewel-toned dresses made for swirling and flaunting. The song is incredibly amusing; the dancing spectacular. It’s pure eye candy that delights the heart and the soul. Kudos to Tristan Raines for the costume design.

What a cast! Dinardo excels as Anita, the worldly, “older” sister to Maria, who has just come to America and is inexperienced when it comes to the opposite sex. Their close relationship makes their final duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” all the more bittersweet.

Riff (Sam Wolf) and Bernardo (Nikko Kimzin) are both effectively commanding and conflicted in their roles as respective leaders of the Jets and Sharks who must decide the terms of the rumble that will settle the turf dispute once and for all.

The action slowly builds momentum, with anticipation reaching its apex towards the end of Act I, when the whole company gathers to sing “Tonight.” Absolutely breathtaking, it is musical theater at its best.

This show demands great choreography, and Jeffry Denman, assisted by Lauren Cannon, and assistant director/fight choreographer, Trey Compton, deliver it big time. Some of the finest dancing is showcased in “Somewhere,” a dreamy, wishful sequence in which Maria and Tony watch dancers dressed in white move blithely across the stage with joyous grace despite the rumble’s tragic ending. As Trimmer, Williams and company sing, Ashley Pérez Flanagan gives an outstanding solo that further lights up this poignant scene.

Also worthy of mention is the hilarious song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” featuring the well-choregraphed antics of Action (Scott Shedenhelm) and the rest of the Jets. In Act II, it offers needed comic relief as the world that these young adults know starts to spiral out of control.

As always, the band at the Engeman, led by musical director James Olmstead on keyboard, is topnotch and does full justice to Bernstein’s musical genius. The music and lyrics linger on long after you leave the theater.

“West Side Story” runs through November 8, but the popular show will likely sell out soon. The John W. Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport. For more information, call (631) 261-2900 or by visit www.engemantheater.com.

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