Players Leap into West Side Story

by Bob McLaughlin and John Lieder

Community Players’ first musical of 2017 is the legendary West Side Story. The musical adapts Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary setting where white and Puerto Rican street gangs—the Jets and the Sharks—feud, and Tony and Maria try to transcend the bloodshed with their love story.

Director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein, and playwright Arthur Laurents first had the idea of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet in the late 1940s. Originally, they had planned for lovers to be a Jewish boy and a Catholic girl, but the more they worked on it, the more it seemed like a warmed-over Abie’s Irish Rose, so the project was abandoned. Flash forward a few years to a Hollywood hotel swimming pool where Bernstein and Laurents, sunning themselves, read a story about New York street gangs. Light bulbs pop on over their heads, they see the way to make their R&J idea relevant, they call Robbins, and the project is back on.

Two problems developed. First, Bernstein had planned to write the lyrics himself, but before long it was clear that he had taken on too much. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, his lyricists from On the Town and Wonderful Town were entangled in projects at MGM. Laurents remembered this kid he ran into at a party whose first Broadway show had just fallen through; he hadn’t liked the kid’s music, but he loved the lyrics. So Stephen Sondheim, who immediately hit it off with Bernstein, came on board as co-lyricist. And, yes, that’s the billing he received when the show previewed in Washington. During that run, Bernstein, in what Laurents called the most generous act he’d ever seen in the theater, offered to give Sondheim sole credit for the lyrics.

The second problem was finding a producer. Despite the creators’ pedigree, every producer in New York was scared of the subject matter. Would audiences come see a show where there are two dead bodies on stage at the first act curtain? And a dead hero at the end of the show? Harold Prince and his partner Robert Griffith initially passed on West Side Story because they had another musical in the pipeline, but when all other possibilities fell through, they took it on. Prince recalls running in to another producer who asked if it was true that the duo was producing West Side Story, then said, “Good. It’s about time you two had a flop.”

Of course, West Side Story was far from a flop. The original production opened at the Winter Garden Theater on September 26, 1957, to generally positive reviews and ran for 732 performances. After a national tour, the Broadway company returned to New York for another 249 performances. Surprisingly, it won only two Tony Awards—for choreography and set design—everything else going to the big hit of the season, The Music Man.

West Side Story’s legendary status was cemented by the 1961 film adaptation, which preserved Robbins’s brilliant choreography and popularized the score. Indeed, the soundtrack recording spent 54 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard 200 list, still a record. The film won ten Academy Awards, also still a record for a musical film. There have been two Broadway revivals, one in 1980 and one in 2011, and countless productions around the world, from opera houses to high schools.

Leading our production as the star-crossed lovers are Teresa Williams as Maria and Brady Hughes as Tony. Both have beautiful voices: Ms. Williams’ voice is pure and powerful and Mr. Hughes’ conquers the stratospheric high notes at the end of his solos with ease. The pair shines most brightly in their duets, “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”.

Tony and Maria are caught in the middle of the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. Spencer Powell plays head Shark, Bernardo, and Sage Brown leads the Jets as Tony’s friend, Riff.

Ben Hauck plays Bernardo’s friend, Chino, and Wendy Baugh is Bernardo’s girl, Anita. Others in the Shark ensemble are played by Aimee Kerber, Erin Box, Melissa Freese, Jarek Milburg, Tyler Stark, Mason Lishka, Sam Willis, and Rosie Hauck.

Joining Brown as Jets are Aaron Wiessing as Action, Alex Knightwright as Diesel, Billy Blue as Arab, Jacob Matchett as Baby John, Jay Williams as Big Deal, Nyk Sutter as Snowboy and Carys Fritz as Anybodys. The women associated with the Jets (the Jets Girls) are played by Lauren O’Neil, Hannah Blumenshine, Darraugh Griffin, Dreena Carr, and Catlin Mallady.

Principal dancers, featured in the musical number “America,” are Maggie Paloucek, Erica O’Neill, Grace Winterland, Melea Hauck, Melissa Freese, and Lauren O’Neil.

Rounding out the cast as “The Adults” are Bruce Parrish as Doc, Brett Cottone as Lt. Schrank, and Scott Myers as Officer Krupke. Our production also includes a vocally talented children’s “chorus” which is sure to provide the audience with a goosebump or two. Included in this group are Thomas Toohill, Josie Hauck, Laila Jones, Joelle Roberts, Lana Huls, and Dash Morgan.

That’s a fairly sizeable cast, and Director Alan Wilson and Choreographer Billy Blue quite effectively fill the stage for large production numbers such as, “The Dance at the Gym,” “America,” and “The Quintet”.

Other staff members are Jennifer Maloy as producer, Jacob Deters as music director, and Jen Gallivan as costumer. Eli Mundy is doing sound, Chris Terven is designing the lighting, and Carlene Blue is lighting technician. Crystal Robinson is in charge of properties, Judy Stroh is stage manager, and Wendi Ayers is house manager.

The set, designed by Ashleigh Ferger, suggests a west side New York slum street and offers multiple levels that are used to good effect.

The pay-what-you-can Preview performance is Thursday, March 9, with regular performances March 10-12, 17-19, and 24-26. Evening performances begin at 7:30 and Sunday matinees are at 2:30. Note that, apart from the Preview, there are no other Thursday performances.

West Side Story contains some limited choreographed gang violence and some ethnic epithets, but this American musical classic is a “must see” for all but perhaps the very young.


Photos by John Lieder