When "West Side Story" opened on Broadway in 1957, after five years' work by Jerome Robbins et al, another sturdy guidepost in the development of the American musical theatre was planted. Based somewhat on "Romeo and Juliet", the show started as "East Side Story" about the conflict between Polish and Jewish DP communities. But New York as ever was changing, and more exotic Puerto Ricans moved into the neighborhood. The hero's real name is still Anton though, and the comic classic "Officer Krupke" is a polka. Almost fifty years later the show still resonates, though Arthur Laurents' attempts at slang seem more labored than ever. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics hold up, but it's the combination of Leonard Bernstein's memorable score with Jerome Robbins' ground-breaking choreography, establishing a movement vocabulary still being used today, which makes the show worth revisiting.
The opening production of Reagle Player's 36th season once again justified this unique company's efforts to recreate musical shows in something like their original style. Artistic director Bob Eagle engaged a spirited young cast of music theatre professionals, some still in training. Director Ken Leigh Rogers, currently a senior dance lecturer at Carnegie Mellon molded them in a tight ensemble. Lori Leschner, currently teaching and choreographing at NYU, a veteran of this show and various others, on tour or at venues across the country, faithfully recreated Robbin's original style with impressive results, working her young dancers to their fullest. And they can sing too.
Bernstein's theatre music, trending as always toward Carnegie Hall rather than Tin Pan Alley, demands attention and range, while Sondheim's lyrics demand careful diction, even in novelty numbers like "America" or "Krupke". Vocal director Jennifer Honen, a private teacher, accompanist for Brandeis' music department, and accomplished performer brought the company up to snuff while conductor Jeffrey P. Leonard, head of the award-winning jazz program at Lexington High, assembled a first-rate pit orchestra to do the score justice, calling in some of the best theatre musicians in town.
The romantic leads, Tony and Maria, were sung by Stephen Brockway, a experienced tenor with a sincere sound, and Mary Tucker, a young soprano with a bright future. The two blend well and formed a believable core to the sometimes stereotyped action. They held their own in the ballet "Somewhere" as well, which was sung affectingly by Marvin Lewis, a cruise ship veteran, as Big Deal. The showy part of Anita, which brought Chita Rivera into the permanent spotlight, was sung and danced to near perfection by Stacey Harris. Her road show experience is evident. The near operatic sequence near the end between Anita and Maria was also especially well done.
Singling out members of such a tight ensemble is difficult. David F.M.Vaughn as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and Adam Jacobs as Bernardo the Shark's honcho wouldn't have been as effective without strong presence of performers like Brett Schellenberger as Action --also understudying Tony--or Mauricio Sanchez, a Venezuelan born Bostonian who's the shows dance captain, as Chino. Amy Shure as Anybodys, as in "anybody's bratty kid sister" was a ball of energy onstage throughout the show and will play a diminutive Frenchy in Reagle's next show, "Grease". Among the adults in this juvenile world, New York actor Robert Ieardi looked and sounded the part of Det. Schrank, while Reagle veterans Dan Kileyas Doc and Charley Borden as Krupke, with local musical performer Craig Downs as Principal Glad Hand, brought a sense of adult futility to the streetcorner life of the Sharks and the Jets.
This summer's musical season in Waltham promises to be especially entertaining. The Youth Theatre, Reagle's farm team, is doing "Seussical" at the end of June, at a new venue near the center of town. "Grease" which will use some performers in this show will bring out a family crowd and probably a younger audience. Local newsman and Reagle favorite, Scott Wahle is returning for his third season in and as "The Music Man", opposite Sarah Pfisterer, who was impressive as Eliza in "My Fair Lady" last summer. There have been plenty of new and/or updated musical shows in the area this year; it's good to get back to basic style now and then. Trinity's uneasy update of "West Side Story: earlier in the season was rather fragmented by all reports. Reagle's earnest efforts are by and large as entertaining as any of the high-priced retreads brought into the big houses downtown. There's plenty of free parking and their productions are on a par with North Shore Music Theatre as often as not.
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