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Elizabeth Hurd Review: 'West Side Story' a wonderful classic done wonderfully

Austin Colby (Tony) and MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) in Lyric Theatre's production of West Side Story. [Photo by KO Rinearson]
Austin Colby (Tony) and MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) in Lyric Theatre's production of West Side Story. [Photo by KO Rinearson]

Any time the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and the music of Leonard Bernstein are together, love happens, and in “West Side Story” there is love, heartache, joy and song. 

The book is by Arthur Laurents, and the story is based on a concept by Jerome Robbins. The idea isn’t exactly original; after all “West Side Story” is the American “Romeo and Juliet” from the '50s and that is no secret! Jerome Robbins originally directed and choreographed the hit musical, and “West Side Story” has been exceedingly popular ever since.

Lyric Theatre is currently showing “West Side Story” through this weekend only at the Civic Center in the Thelma Gaylord Performance Theatre. 

In “West Side Story,” two teenage gangs vie for supremacy in the 1950's Upper West Side of New York City. Tony, a handsome white boy leads the Jets gang along with sidekick, Riff. Their rivals are the Sharks from Puerto Rico, under the leadership of Bernardo and associate, Chino. Bernardo is in love with the voluptuous vivacious Anita, a successful seamstress. Often assisting Anita is the innocent Maria, sister to Bernardo. When Maria and Tony first set eyes on each other, they fall irrevocably and hopelessly in love, although everyone, from families, gangs and friends as well as foes will disapprove.

The story has been told a thousand times —“West Side Story” is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and the theme of star-crossed lovers plays out seventy thousand times seven and more in literature and life.

Lyric brings Matthew Gardiner from Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, to direct “West Side Story” again here in Oklahoma City. Amy Reynolds-Reed choreographs beautifully, and Jan McDaniel is musical director/conductor. These three head up a marvelous crew, cast and orchestra. Rachel Flesher is an innovative fight choreographer, and the team of Flesher and Reynolds-Reed provides unbeatable choreography for the cast of “West Side Story” in a realistically moving manner. The choreography for this production is as core to the story as the wonderful music McDaniel orchestrates. Placing the orchestra in the back of the stage enhances the sound quality. Gardiner is a young, yet distinguished director, and clearly part of his success comes from assembling a great team. Just as Lyric’s artistic director Michael Baron has put together an excellent season with his team, including the talent Gardiner brings.

Technically, the show is impressive with a visually vibrant set by Kimberly Powers. Jeffrey Meeks costumes the performers with lovely and exciting outfits from the era. The ladies are gorgeous, and the men are dangerously sensual. Helena Kuukka designs the lights that signal the mood of each scene, and Anthony Risi’s sound design complements the mood and music. Props are crucial, and designer Courtney Strong contributes simply and aptly. Hair designer Joann Middleton Weaver creates styles evocative of the period, but also flowing and natural as befits the characters. Technical direction by Dawn Drake and production stage management by Julie Meyer pull everything together in place allowing performers to shine.

And they do shine, sometimes sparkly and sometimes glowing and even sadly mourning. The cast is a blend of Oklahoma native favorites familiar to Lyric audiences with the addition of many extremely talented performers from across the nation making their Lyric Theatre debut. The large cast is never unwieldy, always flowing in perfect tune and tone.

 MaryJoanna Grisso is Maria - graceful, pretty and emotional in the role. Her voice is interesting as well as wonderful, and although there are times it is hard to understand the lyrics, her unique vocal coloration and extensive range astounds the senses. Austin Colby is Tony, clean-cut and fresh with a strong yet mellow voice that melts the heart. Alexander Cruz is Bernardo, whose tough exterior shows in his voice as well as his inner core - hidebound as well. Desirée Davar is quite fabulous as Anita with a powerful soaring voice and a raw sensuality in attitude and movement that is quite impressive and expressive.

Christopher Rice is great in his performance as Riff, Tony’s sidekick, and Gino Chaviano is excellent as Chino, Bernardo’s cohort, in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria. Additionally, all the very talented actors who make up the gangs and the girls are quite superb. As an ensemble they reveal varied emotions distinctly and distinctively. One of the interesting roles is Anybodys, performed by Abbie Ruff. Her tomboy exterior and desire to be a full-fledged gang member translates beautifully.  Ryan Fitzgerald is notable as Action, Hannah Fernandes as Rosalia, and Sophie Braud as Consuela. Alaina VI Maderal as Francisca is also remarkable, especially in the number "I Feel Pretty" (although some programs list her as Fernanda. In song, all voices soar, and in dance, bodies athletically float. They show us the instincts of the shark and the speed of the jet. 

There are other notable performances from members of the New York community: Vince Leseney as Doc, the druggist where Tony works, is a gentle friend and role model for the neighborhood, but young bloods pay little attention. David H. Dobson is Lt. Schrank whose police presence and integrity is questionable. Dobson is a familiar and welcome face to Oklahoma audiences. Another favorite is Stephen Hilton whose Krupke, the simple cop on the beat, gives performance that is indicative of time, place and a little humor in a tough old world.

“West Side Story” is appearing only through Saturday, July 29. The curtain is at 8 p.m. both Friday and Saturday nights. There will also be a Saturday afternoon performance at 2 pm. On Thursday, the curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. at Oklahoma City's Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker Ave. The Civic Center has three stages, and “West Side Story” is presented in the main auditorium — Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre.

For more information and tickets, contact Lyric at or call 405-524-9312 Monday through Friday afternoon. The Civic Center Box Office can also arrange tickets, and that number is 405-297-2264. Or contact online city tickets at 800-854-2196 seven days a week. 

“West Side Story” is a classic tale with a beautiful score and should not be missed.

Elizabeth Hurd

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