REVIEW // West Side Story on Westside Drive
Roberts Wesleyan College Community Theatre performs the classic tale
When it opened on Broadway in 1957, West Side Story was a cutting edge, raw musical, almost ahead of its time—in the vein of recent musicals Rent, Book of Mormon, or Urinetown.
The story is set in Upper West Side Manhattan (which was a blue collar community in the 50s) and centered on the rivalry between a white gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Though the storyline is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the producers of the 1957 musical were afraid the social themes of racism and class were too strong for audiences and would cause an uproar. Ultimately, a brave producer stepped in and the show opened as planned, becoming one of the most beloved musicals in American history.
On Friday night, the Roberts Wesleyan College Community Theatre (RWCCT) performed the show with a cast of more than forty talented singers, dancers, and actors from around the Rochester area. Under the artistic direction of Judith A. Ranaletta (former longtime director of music and drama programs at Greece Athena High School), this production is a fast-paced revival that stays true to its roots while adding a bit of creative flair.
The set design by Jim Price rivals sets found on regional and touring stages: compact, yet flowing; simple, yet stunning. Props coordinator Marcia Stevens does an excellent job of dressing the set in 1950s decor, and Mary Farmer’s costumes are a sock hop feast of pastels, flippy skirts, and rolled-up jeans—perfectly accenting Lana Momano’s on-point period wig work. The only puzzling visual is Maria’s large, curly wig, which seems more fitting for a character like Little Bo Peep and eclipses actress Paige Kiefner’s petite, heart-shaped face.
There are few hobbies as time-consuming as musical theater, and the RWCCT ensemble has clearly worked long hours to make this a tight, clean production. As my seat mate remarked early in the show, “it’s amazing that they found so many local guys who can move like that.” It’s true: the dance numbers and fight scenes are particularly impressive—and those tend to be wild cards in any community theater production—guided by expert dance choreographer Bobby Conte and renowned fight choreographer Steve Vaughan.
Jimmy Boorum (Tony) possesses a childlike joy that might be a different interpretation of Tony's character, but his wide vocal range and soaring solos clearly won him the role and, in turn, win the audience. Paige Kiefner (Maria) is stunning, a triple threat of acting, singing, and dancing talent. Her natural beauty and grace onstage is an added bonus—with the exception of that wig—and it’s not hard to see why Tony falls in love at first sight. Katie Weber (Anita) is a sassy, Betty Rizzo-like character who leads “America,” one of the most enjoyable numbers of the evening. Other standouts are Zachary Brown as the tough, loyal Riff; Brian Maxwell as a hilarious Action; and Courtney Weather-Maxwell as a loveable Anybodys. Whether through the show’s draw or the network of the creative team, though, the entire ensemble is packed with people strong enough to play lead roles, as evidenced by cast bios and solos like those of Kaitlyn Baldwin and Jessie Keim during “Somewhere.”
One of the most striking things about the performance is the decision to place the orchestra onstage, on the second “floor” of the set. They are visible and softly lit for the entirety of the show—a nice reminder that without a fantastic pit orchestra (conducted by Paul Shewan), a cohesive, entertaining musical wouldn’t be possible.
The production is partnering with the Rochester Latino Theatre Company for the “Westside Story Project,” an anti-gang, city-specific program that works with community youth for ten weeks to educate and reform. This partnership is an excellent reminder that even after the show closes, the “community” part of “community theater” remains—and musical theater can have an impact beyond a simple stage performance.
West Side Story runs through January 25. For tickets, visit here.
Photos by Pam Ernst.
Leah Stacy is the editor-in-chief of (585) magazine and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.