“West Side Story,” now playing at the Forestburgh Playhouse, (FBP) is arguably one of the most popular Broadway musicals of all time. The original production, written in 1957, was an instant smash and spawned a 1961 film version that has since captured the hearts of millions worldwide.
Inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the story focuses on young lovers Tony (Michael Schauble) and Maria (Emily Brown) and their ill-fated romance, set against a back drop of warring street gangs, racial strife and the turbulent transition of the late 1950s giving way to a new generation.
The book, by the incomparable Arthur Laurents is enhanced with a brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein paired with inspired lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and the FBP offering rightfully pays homage to the original production, directed and choreographed by the legendary Jerome Robbins. Packed with action, the play takes place in the mean streets of New York and the score contains some of the most memorable tunes ever written, including “Tonight,” “Maria,” “Officer Krupke,” and “America.”
Artistic supervisor Ron Nash, teamed with resident director Kevin Confoy, have made all of the right choices with this production and the cast hit the stage on opening night- singing and dancing their hearts out, giving new life to Robbins’ original concept, while lending originality to their performances at the same time. Choreographer Maggie Anderson was careful to honor the original production, thereby allowing a smaller chorus to shine at the playhouse, in this larger-than-life theatrical presentation.
Although Ryan Touhey’s musical direction stumbled once or twice during the first act, even that could not deter the amazingly talented cast from delivering. As Tony and Maria declare their forbidden love, they face and fight their families and prejudices, while capturing the audience in a magic spell that only live theatre can create. Schauble and Brown have beautiful, strong voices and considerable acting chops that belie their youth. Delicately subtle when required, the pair's ability to convey their mutual adoration propels the passionate story line, and the audience was swept away as the powerful plot unfolded.
By the time the pair performed the duet, “One hand, One Heart,” the packed house was committed, and roared approval every time they sang. Other actors followed suit, providing terrific renditions of well known songs, including the fabulous Gabriella Perez (Anita), who solidly delivered a great performance throughout. Matching Perez note for note (and on the dance floor as well) was one of this season’s standout actors, Michael Graceffa, who also provided a multi-layered performance as Anita’s lover Bernardo. Macho and imposing, Graceffa’s interpretation provides the perfect blend of simmering sexuality, while his sometimes frightening violent streak bubbles to the surface. The show demands strong performers and the four leads all exceeded my personal expectations.
While gifted, these actors cannot make “West Side Story’ work on their merit alone, and the wildly enthusiast audience continued to cheer as the ensemble performed the often difficult choreography and musical prowess needed to deliver the “Dance at the Gym,” “The Rumble” and the intense reprise of “Tonight.” Well constructed characters were brought vividly to life, and both the boys and girls chorus were very, very good--adding even more electrifying pizzazz to the overall success of the show. While talented to a fault, a few of the guys stand out, including Josh Pins and spot-on Kyle Van Zandt (as Baby John and A-Rab, respectively) along with Zachary Bencal (as Action).
More talent, in the form of Lauren Chapman (Anybodys) and Katie Sarno (Rosalia) also truly impressed along with (consistently great) Kevin Confoy’s tough-as-nails Detective Shrank, Steve Davis’ Doc and Melissa Niknam’s (the Widow) gorgeous voice tugging at the hearts of the audience as the show builds to its dramatic, haunting climax. “West Side Story” is a familiar tale to many, including me --and yet I found myself so immersed in the story that I was once again carried away by the tragic tale. While there are laughs, it is the pathos inherent in the plot that lingers. Feeling slightly overwhelmed, I must admit that I cried as the last notes of the lush score echoed in the rafters, while the audience leapt to it’s collective feet, giving the entire cast a well deserved standing ovation.
“West Side Story’ runs through August 5 at the FBP. For reservations and information visit www.fbplayhouse.org  or call 845/794-1194.