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West Side Story 

Modern Love
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West Side Story.

'West Side Story' still entertains

By Daedalus Howell

MANY BELIEVE that community theaters, when under critical scrutiny, deserve special coddling on the part of the reviewer. No such indulgence is necessary, however, for the Santa Rosa Players' production of West Side Story, a show so hot you gotta upgrade the kid gloves to oven mitts.

Created by Broadway behemoths Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim in the late 1950s, West Side Story is this century's pre-eminent retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Updated with all the trappings of rank-and-file urban life, West Side Story pits native New Yorker street thugs the Jets against Puerto Rican émigrés the Sharks in a tragic dance to the death for turf. In the balance hang ill-starred lovers Tony (an ex-Jet adeptly played by Ryan Brady) and Maria (Alyssa Zainer deftly portraying this sister of a Shark).

Directorial duo Gene Abravaya and Bob Rom take a skilled and energized cast and forge a production that is surprisingly entertaining and vital. Electric from the get-go, the show opens with a combustible dance sequence bordering on the acrobatic--these guys are practically gymnasts, and their physical agility alone is worth the ticket price.

The Jets, a wisecracking ragtag company of hyenas and cut-ups led by de facto alpha-male Riff (Austin Meisel's edgy portrayal rings true down to his New York pronunciation of Sharks as "Shocks") are so synchronized in their aerial stage antics that they recall a circus act. These performers particularly shine during the musical's signature "Officer Krupke" routine, a crowd-pleasing paean to juvenile delinquency delivered here with vim and hilarity.

The well-cast Sharks also cut imperturbably cool characters. Though they have less comic dialogue than their counterparts, their sinister finesse often pitches ironic, as when their svelte honcho Bernardo (sympathetically portrayed by Josh Salsberg) voices his socioeconomic grievances with America to the tune of "Everything free in America--for a small fee in America!"

Bernardo's chief bantermate and foil is the acidic Anita, played with comic alacrity by an on-the-money Casey Giordano, flanked by an arsenal of sexy, high-kicking sisters-in-arms.

As the lovers, Brady and Zainer (both wonderful singers) excel at portraying the zealous nature of adolescent ardor (remember, the entire story is compressed into a 24-hour tempest of love and death). The players ably depict Tony and Maria's urgent love without slogging in schmaltz or slowing the play's expeditious clip.

The cast's strong vocal abilities are complemented by the Players' crackerjack orchestra, led by musical director Jane Ludwig Crowley. Its robust playing sounds larger than the sum of its six-piece personnel.

As one Shark wryly quips in the early part of the musical, "In America, nothing is impossible." The Santa Rosa Players proves the adage true for community theater as well.

West Side Story plays through Dec. 20 at the Lincoln Arts Center, 709 Davis St., Santa Rosa. Showtimes are at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. $10-$12. 544-7827.

From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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