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PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZTony and Maria, played by Austin Colby and MaryJoanna Grisso, in the Balcony Scene in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 season-opening production of “West Side Story,” through July 3. PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZTony and Maria, played by Austin Colby and MaryJoanna Grisso, in the Balcony Scene in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 season-opening production of “West Side Story,” through July 3.
PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZThe Jets claim their territory in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 25th anniversary season production of “West Side Story,” through July 3 on the Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley. PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZThe Jets claim their territory in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 25th anniversary season production of “West Side Story,” through July 3 on the Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley.

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival tells a brilliant ‘West Side Story’

Friday, July 1, 2016 by Paul Willistein pwillistein@tnonline.com in Focus

If you think you know “West Side Story,” either from having seen a previous stage production or the 1961 movie version, think again.

Until you’ve seen the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of “West Side Story” directed by PSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, you don’t know “West Side Story.”

PSF’s “West Side Story” leaps, jumps and sings with excitement on the Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, where the classic 1957 musical continues through July 3 on the DeSales University campus in Center Valley, opening PSF’s 25th anniversary season dedicated to its founder Father Gerard J. Schubert.

(The excitement continues for PSF 2017 with the opening night June 17 curtain talk announcement by PSF Producing Artistic Director Patrick Mulcahy that “Evita’ opens PSF’s 26th season.)

PSF production of “West Side,” reviewed June 17, is Broadway-caliber on every level. It gleams like a switchblade, is as unforgettable as a favorite song and resonates with ripped-from-headlines reality thanks to its brilliant 36 actors and gifted technical artists:

Costume Designer Michael McDonald, who eschews the leather look for preppy ties and shorts for the Jets (the Caucasian gang), chooses purple hues (Prince homage?) for the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang), and dresses the women in lovely dresses;

Scenic Designer Steve TenEyck, working with Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen and Projection Supervisor Arianna Knapp, utilizes the set’s depictions of fire escapes (at once, a dream of escape to the country and the reality of a socio-economic prison) as emotional metaphor for song, dialogue and action: blue up-lights signal tension, red-drenched lighting signifies blood and passion, stage smoke presages conflict, and black and white street-scape backdrops enlarge the dramatic canvas;

Music Director-Conductor Nathan Diehl, also on piano, helms the 15-piece orchestra (including three violins, four reeds, two trumpets) with blasts of sound to rival rock bands; and

Original Choreography (the entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins) Re-staged by Stephen Casey, working with Fight Director Michael Rossmy, moves the massive dance ensemble with the precision of a military drill sergeant (there are 10 Jets, 10 Sharks, six Jet Girls and six Shark Girls, who sometimes seem to be on stage all at once) and the balletic grace of Balanchine buoyancy, and in unison yet. Cory Boulieris is Production Stage Manager. Carolyn Reich is Assistant Stage Manager.

From the opening overture that will have you singing in your seat, PSF “West Side” director Dennis Razze captures the tough and tender of mid-1950s west side New York City when juvenile delinquency rattled authorities, psychologists, and parents, rock ‘n’ roll rolled over Beethoven and Perry Como on the Hit Parade and “Daddy-O,” “Dig,” “Chicks” and other teen slang (incorporated into the Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein and Lyrics by Steven Sondheim) befuddled everyone else.

“West Side” explodes on the stage from the controlled frenzy of the production number, “Jet Song,” sung with biting intensity by Nathan Madden (Riff) and The Jets, segueing into the jittery anticipation of “Something’s Coming,” sung with pure exuberance by Austin Colby (Tony), morphing into the extended dance sequences of Mambo, Cha-Cha and more, and culminating in “Maria,” sung by Colby to MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria).

Grisso and Colby rhapsodize the Balcony Scene (an homage to William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which inspired “West Side”) with a transcendent “Tonight,” followed by a skirt-swirling “America” by Karli Dinardo (Anita), Kelsey Denae (Rosalia) and the Shark Girls, which is offset by the modern dance of “Cool” by Madden and The Jets, and balanced by the exquisite “One Hand, One Heart” by Grisso and Colby.

Charles South (Bernardo) is dynamic. Joe Vincent (Doc) is sympathetic. William Zielinski (Lieutenant Shrank) is a voice of reason. Other standouts: Julian Alvarez (Pepe) and Gaby Gamache (Consuela), the latter especially in “I Feel Pretty,” as she harmonizes beautifully with Grisso, Denae and Chelsea Mariah Soto (Teresita).

The Ballet Sequence with Grisso and Colby, leading to “Somewhere” in a solo by Soto, and concluding in the “Procession and Nightmare,” is a sizzling example of stagecraft of the highest order by top-notch actors as directed by Razze and executed by his amazing production team.

“Gee, Officer Krupke” by The Jets provides some needed levity, leading to the inevitable tragic conclusion that “somewhere ... a place for us” may not be found in this world.

However, you can find “West Side Story” in the here and now at The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. If you’re going to see a classic musical this summer theater season, “West Side Story” is the one to see.

Tickets: pashakespeare.org, 610-282-WILL (9455), ext. 1