By Bill Beard
It’s been some time since I last saw a show at Fort Atkinson’s The Fireside Dinner Theatre, and I was thrilled to find that they are still superb. I reviewed their last production of “West Side Story” several years ago, and I was eager to see what masterful director Ed Flesch would do with it this time. He has always been intuitive in his selection of shows. Here again, he has chosen a show which relates to today.
Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which dealt with the prejudice and rivalry between two families in Verona, Italy in the 16th century, “West Side Story” deals with the ethnic discrimination and rivalry between two New York street gangs, the local American “Jets” and the immigrant Puerto Rican “Sharks”.
This long-favorite musical was written in 1957 by Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and a young Stephen Sondheim; but it was legendary choreographer, Jerome Robbins, who came up with the original idea of a modern, urban Romeo and Juliet, adding the ethnic/racist warring street gangs. It was the 1950s, the era of the sinister McCarthy Communist manhunt; Robbins himself had been terrorized into naming ’suspects’ among his friends to be added to the infamous “blacklist”.
Laurents once explained the atmosphere of that time: “That kind of bigotry and prejudice was very much in the air; It’s really, ‘How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?’ That’s what it’s about.”
I believe our much-loved America is still suffering that sort of threat; exemplified by the current “war” over immigration and the increasing evidence of lingering racial discrimination. Ergo my feeling that “West Side Story” is relevant and timely and applies perceptively to our current social and political atmosphere.
The story revolves around a Puerto Rican girl named Maria, whose brother Bernardo is in one gang, the Sharks. But Maria falls in love with Tony, who’s in the opposing “American” gang. Supporting Maria is Bernardo’s sister, Anita, who is torn between her devotion to Maria and her love for her brother; and supporting Tony is best friend and Jet ‘leader’, Riff. When the inevitable “rumble” erupts and the choice of weapons goes from fists to knives, the resulting tragedy ends in death.
These lead roles are all handled with professional results. Maria is brilliantly done by Julia Suriano, a recent graduate of the Manhattan School of Music in classical voice performance. Her voice is flawless, her acting, too. I doubt anyone could find a more perfect casting. Nicely matched as Tony is Herb Porter, returning to the Fireside stage. Herb is a graduate of Dennison University in Ohio with a degree in Biology, but his acting and singing indicate a love for and a successful future in musical theatre. His rendition of the favorite song, “Maria”, was exceptional.
Tony and Maria’s duets were musically inspiring; from the uplifting “Tonight” to the almost prayerful “One Hand, One Heart”, and the plaintiff “Somewhere” (“There’s A Place For Us”), their voices were magnificent.
In a controlled, but nuanced performance as Anita, Arianna Rosario is making her Fireside debut. Her triple threat acting, singing, dancing was splendid, from her exhilarating handling of the spirited “America” and dramatic “A Boy Like That”, to her poignant scene being manhandled by the Jets. All was in control.
As Bernardo, widely experienced Jody Reynard brought strength and solid reliability to a role which can easily be under-realized. Mr. Reynard was on target!
Beau Hutchings’ handling of the role of Riff was also firm and considered; mature, but with just enough bravado to be taunted into danger. He perhaps looked a bit older than the rest of the Jets, but he made it work.
Even the “adult” characters were well chosen. Stalwarts all, the much loved Michael Haws as Doc, Jeffrey Arnold Wolf as Lt. Schrank, and Michael Hennes as Officer Krupke, were believable at all times, balancing the young cast very nicely.
This is a ‘dance show’! Once again, Kate Swan has excelled in reproducing much of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, and the dancers were excellent.
But I had some problems with the overall casting of the chorus. They sang well, danced fine. But I never really felt that they were comfortable in their characters. I never really believed their involvement. [By the way, the wigs on the Jet girls were atrocious; their costumes only “okay”.]
As for the male ensemble, I never felt they exhibited any semblance of New York street gangs. Too often the overall impression came off far too fey. These street guys need to be predominantly tough and macho, or at least appear to be. Too many of the Jets came off as young, and Baby John seems to have taken his character name far too seriously.
But as an ensemble chorus, they served the production perfectly well.
As always at The Fireside, the technical aspects of the production were outstanding.
The orchestra sound track fantastic (though once in a while, a bit too loud). Scenery and lighting, as usual, first rate.
This is a production not to be missed! All of the major actors are truly exceptional professionals. Maria and Tony alone would be enough to make the easy trip to Fort Atkinson (less than an hour); and the supporting leads are topnotch!
I congratulate Mr. Flesch and the producers on their selection of this show. It is not often produced, but remains one of the most revered American musicals. And again, in these very politically complicated days, with revealing new indications of ethnic and racial prejudice, this story of star-crossed lovers from rival factions, is an appropriate reminder of our need for understanding, consideration and love.
“West Side Story” continues at The Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin through October 25. Don’t miss it! Go! Phone 800-477-9505; FiresideTheatre.com.
This year, continuing their long tradition of bringing you the finest in Christmas entertainment, they have replaced their usual “A Fireside Christmas” with one of the most popular Holiday Season musicals: “A Wonderful Life”. Based on the original long loved film, starring James Stewart, the story of George Bailey and his wonderful life in Bedford Falls brings hope and inspiration to every heart with its celebration of the goodness in all of us. With humor, pathos, beautiful dancing, and a brilliant score, Fireside’s “A Wonderful Life” will shine with the spirit of Christmas. Don’t miss it!
Mark your calendar; it opens on October 29 and plays through December 27.