Encore Michigan

Hope’s ‘West Side Story’ has power and pizazz

Review July 10, 2019 Sue Merrell

HOLLAND, Mich.–The production of West Side Story currently playing at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre here in is every bit as fresh, vibrant and tragic as it was when the musical opened on Broadway more than 60 years ago.

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, West Side Story  is a 20th century retelling of Shakespeare’s 16th Century hit, “Romeo and Juliet”,  which in turn was based on an even earlier Italian tale.  Good stories never grow old.

It’s all about forbidden love ripped apart by teen violence, fighting not much different than the brawls that broke out recently at the Grand Rapids Fourth of July celebration. Can’t get much more current than that.

But what struck me when I watched the Hope production is that there’s no rush to rumble in this show. We know trouble is brewing from the first notes of Leonard Bernstein’s titillating score, and yet the opening scene evolves slowly allowing us to savor every detail the music evokes.  The characters tease us with each exaggerated movement of Jerome Robbins expressive choreography, pulling us into the tension, the youthful energy anxious to explode.  This is the pinnacle of musical theater art, using every note, every leap to heighten the audience’s investment in these lives and the tragedy that is about to befall.

HSRT delivers this potent musical with power and pizzazz. Director Mary MacDonald Kerr has done a good job casting a large, racially diverse cast.  As the romantic lead Tony,  Ben Lohrberg  offers not only good looks and a strong, expressive singing voice. He seals the deal with a charming demeanor that makes him seem just a little older and more mature than his testosterone-driven buddies. He’s well matched with Sara Ornelas as an impish Maria who radiates positive vibes.  Their voices blend beautifully.

The supporting cast comes through with strong performances as well, from Maria’s snazzy friend Anita (Natalie Mara) to the fatherly drug store owner Doc (David James.) But this dance-heavy  show is much more of an ensemble production with stellar performances  by the whole team. Kudos to Chaz Sanders who serves as choreographer for this production and also plays the role of Chino, Maria’s jilted love interest. 

Sarah Pearline’s silhouette scaffolding set provides a versatile background for all the scenes with plenty of levels for visual contrast and action.  Alex Thompson leads an outstanding 15-piece orchestra which is tucked out of sight at the back of the stage but does a wonderful  job on Bernstein’s lush and lovely score. We forget how many classic, beloved songs come from this musical including “Maria,” “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty.”

And then, of course, there’s the playful “America,” about immigrants’ expectations of a better life. The lyrics quickly remind us of the current immigration troubles.  “West Side Story” was written in the 1950s when New York was being inundated with immigrants from Puerto Rico. This inspired Robbins to create a story about a New York neighborhood where the dominant white gang,  The Jets, feels threatened by the new Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks.  The gangs become the modern version of Shakespeare’s  feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets.

But it is surprising to see how this 60-year-old script seems fresh from the headlines. Today’s bigotry and name-calling and fear of losing jobs and territory echoes through scene after scene. It is frightening, and truly tragic, to think we have learned so little in all these years.

Week of 7/15/2019

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