The Classic “West Side Story” Gets Spectacular Treatment at The Rep

The Sharks and Jets together in West Side Story at The Rep

 

Liesl Collazo and Jeffrey Kringer star as Maria and Tony in West Side Story at The Rep

 

Donald Trump’s wet dream is alive and well at TheRep in downtown Milwaukee.

Under the phenomenal direction of Mark Clements, The Rep is staging a production that has everything our crazy president demonstrates  on a daily basis in his efforts to transform America. 

We have ethnic stereotypes, prejudice galore, a battle between white folks and a group of Latinos, white authority figures who wants to help the white people “get rid of ‘them’,” unbridled violence and brutal and savage murder. 

It is, of course, West Side Story that opened six-week run Saturday night.

While Trump’s America is ugly, this production has a power and beauty hardly ever seen on any stage anywhere. For those whose only experience is with the 1961 movie, go and see how different and rugged this production is. 

With an incredibly talented team of designers and production staff, Mr. Clements has turned this classic on it’s head and created something new and fresh that has a relevance both striking and horrifying.

This electrifying production will make you laugh, cry, catch your breath and hum along with some of the best known songs from the canon of musical theater.

It is common theatrical knowledge that Mr. Clements has a special touch with big musicals but even he has outdone himself on this one. 

It is probably fair to say that there are no surprises in the story based on the book by Arthur Laurents and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

A white gang, The Jets, feels threatened  by a Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. During a dance held to set up the rules for a rumble between the two, Tony (a former leader and founder of theJets) meets Maria .

They fall desperately in love despite their warring families and after a big fight complete with murder, the tragedy reaches a peak when Tony is killed by a jealous and vengeful Chino. 

A huge cast of 30actors, singers and dancers take over the stage at the Quadracci Powerhouse with the kind of enthusiasm and skill is breathtaking. 

The joyous performances are enhanced by a striking moveable set by Todd Edward Ivins, costumed by Alexander B. Tecoma, Lighting by Ya Lubetsky and the challenging and successful sound design from Daniel Erdberg and Megan B. Henninger. Three other members of the production staff deserve special recognition for that kind of achievements that can define a career.

Dam Kazemi, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Clements, was the music director. It’s a challenge to take these songs that are so ingrained in the musical psyche of an audience and make them stirring, moving and full-hearted. But Mr. Kazemi has taken a six man orchestra and made it and the singers  soar to the farthest reaches of the rafters and your heart. 

So much of this show is about battles and Cuck Coyl has choreographed the fights within the evocative musical gambol so vital to this production. 

And then there is the dancing shaped by young choreographer John Rua, who has worked on several of the most memorable recent Broadway productions.

If you remember the movie the dancing was smooth and flowing. The word “beautiful” has been used to describe it. 

The dancing in this production could never be described that way.

Mr. Rua has created powerful and intimate dance that tells a story as much as anything else in this show. Every movement means something, every glance and fist and forceful pounding of feet have their own emotional punch. 

Having seen dozens of musicals in Milwaukee I can safely say I have never seen choreography that meant as much and that carried me along. There were moments that the dance was like a punch in the face and other  moments where it was like a gentle caress on the cheek. It is a remarkable achievement. 

All of this magnificent production would mean little if there wasn’t a cast to carry the heavy load demanded by West Side Story. This cast was more than up to the task with uniform exuberant excellence. There were several leading performances that were breathtaking. 

The two lovers, Liesl Collazo and Jeffrey Kringer lead the way as Maria and Tony.

Ms. Collazo has a stunning voice and a presence that captures the naive young Puerto Rican girl, recently arrived in America, and suddenly and unexpectedly in love. She sings with the emotional impact of Edith Piaf and the lusty grace and abandon of Gloria Esteban.

She meets her match in Mr. Kringer, who with his curly blonde hair has a boyish maturity that is impeccable. He has a huge tenor range and there is an emotional and passionate timbre to his voice.

When the two of them meet on her balcony and they sing the classic “Tonight” I had my first severe case of goosebumps and they stayed for a long while. 

Courtney Arango played Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, Maria’s brother, and she has a blistering fire that smolders and flames. Her singing, acting and dancing overwhelm with heat, desire, rage and sex appeal.

José-Luis Lopez, Jr. plays Bernardo, who is also the leader of the Sharks and who matches Ms. Arango in the sex appeal department. He has created a character with depth and  multitude of emotional and intellectual heat. Watching him glide around the stage is like watching a Lippizaner stallion in full and graceful rear. 

Two of Milwaukee’s favorite actors, James Pickering and Jonathan Wainwright make small but important appearances. Mr. Pickering is the wise and beleaguered Doc and Mr. Wainwright is the unrelenting authority figure, Lt. Schrank. 

Mr. Clements understands that a complete production is built of moments and this show has dozens. But if there is one that stands out it comes from a little girl named Anybodys. Played by Hope Endrenyl, she dresses like a boy and wants nothing more than to be a member of the Jets. As theplay reaches its inevitable climax she appears in the audience, standing quietly on a platform and she sings the haunting ballad “Somewhere.” She moves slowly to the stage, in front of Tony and Maria and it’s a moment to cherish.

West Side Story has a prominent place in any discussion of the greatest musicals of all time and this production by The Rep does more than justice to the legacy of the powerful piece of theater.

Cast: Maria, Liesl Collazo; Anita, Courtney Arango; Bernardo José-Luis Lopez, Jr.’ Chino, Carlos A. Jimenez; Pepe, Mark Cruz; Luis, Joshua Ponce; India, Gilberto Saenz; Anxious, Austin Winter;  Nibbles, AJ Morales; Rosalia, Mara Cecilia; Consuela, Isabella Abel-Suarez; Teresita, Brianna Mercado; Francesca, Gina dePool; Estella/Maria’s Mother, Brooke Johnson; Margarita, Reese Parish; Isabel, Isabel Bastardo; Gabriella, Terynn Erby-Walker; Tony, Jeffrey Kringer; Riff, Jacob Burns; Diesel, Clay Roberts; A-Rab, Devin Richey; Action, Alex Hayden Miller; Baby John, Alex Hatcher; Snowboy, Rick Parrott; Graziella, Rebecca Corrigan; Velma, Kellie Hoagland; Anybodys, Hope Endrenyl; Minnie, Sydney Kirkegaard; Clarice, Georgina Pink; Doc, James Pickering; Lt. Schrank, Jonathan Wainwright; Officer Krupke, Bill Watson; Swing, Dan Castiglione; “I Feel Pretty” Swing, Isabel Bastardo.

Orchestra: Conductor/ Pianist, Dan Kazemi; Trumpet Greg Garcia; Drums, Patrick Morrow; Reeds, Johnny Padilla; Bass, Michael Ritter; Violin , Eric Segnitz. 

Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements; Choreographer, John Rua; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tecoma; Lighting Designer, Yael Lubetsky; Co-Sound Designers, Daniel Erdberg and Megan B. Henninger; Music Supervisor, John Tanner; Fight Choreographer, Chuck Coyl; Voice and Text Director, Micha Espinosa; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown Casting; Stage Manager Tara Kelly; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow. 

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