Courtesy of Encore Theatre/Michelle Anliker
In 1961, “West Side Story” was the kind of musical that audiences didn't expect to see. Filled with its own liberal sentiments, the expressions of political ramblings through the street gangs at war - (one Puerto Rican and the other descendants of European immigrants) - felt rather feisty. Outside of the American theatre, it seems like people have a tendency to forget about "West Side Story.” After winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1961, the screenplay seemed to slip through the cracks of top-of-the-line cinema noir. And while The American Film Institute lists the film as the 41st best flick in existence, it doesn’t even crack IMDb’s top 250. So to some, it’s their blood. To others, it’s just a poster on the marquee.
All that aside, The Encore Musical Theatre has taken extensive liberties with their own rendition of “West Side Story.” Fine tuning the details of what makes this show tick, while continuing to make the case as to why they're one of the most highly acclaimed regional theaters in southeastern Michigan: they find ways to make classic shows relevant again.
But maybe we’re seeing a resurgence in the material (or why The Encore choose to produce the show) is because of how timely it feels. The idea of seeing a gang made up of predominantly white men (the Jets), taking on a similar sized band of dark-skinned, mostly Latinos (the Sharks) somehow doesn’t seem that far off the line from our current political climate. When one of the Jets shouts “Brown boy, get lost” to many, it is almost a desensitized exclamation, which truly puts this show into perspective right from the beginning.
The Encore has also delivered a set design that's a huge step in innovation for the small 100 seat theater. Designer Sarah Tanner has indeed put a unique spin on the timeless story, with the normal tier of “West Side” expectations that allows the cast plenty of room to execute Matthew Brennan's vibrant choreography. In a way, Tanner and Brennan are a dream team if The Encore ever had one.
For those five of you that might be unfamiliar with the tale, the story takes place in the Upper West Side of New York City during the mid 1950s. While it’s mostly a blue-collar working bunch that live in the towns plucky suburbs, after the urban renewal project made its course, it changed the dynamics for the worse. And so as a result, a long-standing rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs from various ethnic backgrounds, came to fruition. As mentioned earlier, the Jets (lead with gusto by Spencer “Skip” Stewart’s very well performed Riff) are constantly at war with the Sharks (headed by the stylish, sleek, and suave Bernardo played by Eric Rivas, who exhibits all of the aforementioned qualities).
It’s not just a battle of supremacy between these two gangs, but a way of life. Something Director Daniel Cooney establishes from the start (and is only bolstered even more by Tyler Driskell’s impeccable music direction - I’m serious when I say, this guy is royalty). Of course, once the first batch of opening numbers (“Prologue” and "Jet Song”) manage to kick the show into gear, the main crux of the plot finds Tony - Conor Jordan who's guaranteed to melt the hearts of everyone in attendance - falling passionately in love with Maria (Aurora Penepacker) the unattainable girl next door and sister to Bernardo.
In a Shakespearean cliché, their forbidden love drives the show's memorable plot, and Penepacker and Jordan spark the kind of romantic electricity needed to keep “West Side Story” a-float. For this show to gel in any capacity, the audience has to fall in love with Maria, and thanks to Penepacker's gorgeous vocals (“I Feel Pretty” is a standout) I could easily hop on the bandwagon.
It’s a riveting story of forbidden love and the bigotry that surrounds it, which is something that Arthur Laurents timeless script has managed to beautifully display. While certain elements stem from “Romeo and Juliet,” “West Side” is very much its own beast, and The Encore is able to capture their own identity of the show in sporting fashion.
The Encore's ability to create a perfect balance of a lively theatrical experience with a tinge of intensity filling the atmosphere, is mostly attributed to a savvy ensemble that is extremely versatile with their own athletic capabilities. I mean, these folks don’t just have the moves, they have the swagger, and sass, that make for a smooth and memorable portrayal of this demanding script. Part of that is Brennan’s tight direction, and for Cooney allowing the freedom of his cast to make bold decisions; special attention to be paid to the Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein classics “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” - the latter of which is damn near perfection.
In addition, Maris Rivera’s Anita is the type of performance you only dream about seeing, while Sharon Urick’s retro costuming flourishes under Dustin Miller's exuberant lighting design. You can’t make up this kind of talent.
Every fine detail gets spotlighted in this production, and no musical number gets half-produced. I approached this show with some hesitation, because “West Side Story” has a special place in the hearts of many theatre goers (I was sitting next to an older gentlemen that was literally mouthing the words to every song). And in these dark times infesting our country, it’s easy to look at this show and think of how close minded our society was or that we could easily run away from our problems. The important aspect of The Encore’s production of “West Side” isn’t so much that we need to flee from our past, but instead learn from our mistakes.
IF YOU GO:
What: "West Side Story"
When: June 21st-August 12th 2018
Venue: The Encore Musical Theatre Company. 3126 Broad Street, Dexter MI, 48130
To purchase tickets you can call (734-268-6200) or go online at theencoretheatre.org.
All of the above photos courtesy of The Encore Theatre/Michelle Anliker photography