Sunday, April 28, 2013

West Side Story, TrueNorth Theater

(Jason Leupold as Tony and Kathleen Ferrini as Maria)

It takes guts to stage West Side Story, especially with a huge young cast, since the demands of almost operatic singing and often balletic dancing—let alone acting—are fairly monumental. And then there's just the task of moving almost three dozen people around a stage with limited dimensions.

Big challenges, however, never faze director Fred Sternfeld, who moves large masses of people with the decisive precision of Alaric the Visigoth. And Sternfeld is the major domo of this largely successful production at the TrueNorth Theater in Sheffield Village.

Yes, the Jets and Sharks are once again at each others’ throats as the two star-crossed members of each tribe, Tony and Maria, see each other across a crowded gymnasium floor and fall into Shakespearian (in this case meaning tragic) love.

Along with talented choreographer Bebe Weinberg Katz, Sternfeld maxes out the TrueNorth space, often filling the stage with his entire 30-plus person cast. And at times, such as during the “Somewhere” dream sequence when everyone is on stage and in synch, the results are electrifying.

At other moments, several of the young performers lapse into indicating, their facial calisthenics undercutting the real emotions surging throughout this classic.

The two lead roles are a mixed bag themselves. As Maria, Kathleen Ferrini sings sweetly and has a fresh, honest innocence. Jason Leupold as Tony works hard to act his songs, and often succeeds, but his emotions at other times feel more manufactured than genuine.

The two leaders of the gangs, however, seethe with all the visceral rage you could want. Ryan Zarecki’s Bernardo is a swaggering swath of testosterone and Joe Pine is a confident yet at times conflicted Riff. It’s a damn shame they aren’t around to participate in most of the second act (oh, spoiler alert).

Perhaps the fullest characterization is handed in by Natalie Green as the fiery Anita, Maria’s confidant and the person who triggers the bloody denouement. Green’s singing and dancing skills ignite her scenes, and her duet with Maria (“A Boy Like That/ I Have a Love)” is—you should pardon the expression—to die for.

As the tomboy Anybodys, Tess Burgler revs up some dandy gender dysphoria and actually out-machos some of the Jets she is supposedly trying to emulate.

Due to technological issues on this night, the head mics had to be turned off and some of the scenes felt aurally threadbare. And director Sternfeld’s magical skills at moving people around only failed him once, when cast members walk on stage to remove some furniture during the tender “One Hand, One Heart” duet, denting the fragile mood.

But thanks to the boundless enthusiasm of the cast, this West Side Story scores a solid rating of 3½ (out of 5) switchblades. And to those who think this show is too old and sappy to be presented again, well, Krup you.

West Side Story
Through May 12 at TrueNorth at French Creek, 4530 Colorado Ave. (Rt. 611), Sheffield Village, 440-949-5200, ext. 221.

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