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Posted June 27, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Review: SU's 'West Side' is magic

From left, Jessie Lee Hooker, Sarah Sesler, Sarah Philabaum and Robin Higginbotham lead the spirited ensemble in “America” from “West Side Story” at the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre. Courtesy photo

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"West Side Story"

  • By Arthur Laurent
  • Directed by Harold Herman
  • Continuing at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre until July 5.
  • Box office phone number: 665-4569

By John Horan Jr. - jhoran@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- "West Side Story" works its timeless magic at the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre.

The classic musical, with its magnificent score, integral dance routines, tender lovers and menacing gangs, is fully realized in the absorbing production, directed by Harold Herman. The stellar cast luxuriates in Leonard Bernstein's eclectic music and executes Alan Arnett's engrossing choreography with style.

At its core, "West Side Story" is a modern love story, Romeo and Juliet transported to Manhattan tenements of the 1950s, but, as with Shakespeare's pair, the passion Tony and Maria feel for each others collides with the raw hatred of their clans -- newly arrived Puerto Ricans fighting turf battles with lower-class Americans.

Michael Misko and Trish Epperson are ideally paired as the star-cross'd lovers. Each sings gloriously with a glistening, unforced upper range. They also convincingly convey a gamut of emotions, from tender affection to pathos, and she enhances her portrayal by deploying a Spanish accent throughout.

The musical makes no effort to sugarcoat the culture clash. While Bernstein's music is sublime, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are edgy and Arthur Laurents' book unsparingly realistic. The gangs -- the Jets and Sharks -- are not admirable folk. They fight, they badger rivals, they indulge in racial and ethnic stereotypes. Even their women, though undeniably feminine, exude attitude.

The male ensemble, which plays a central role unusual in musicals, is muscular and intimidating. Yet each member establishes a distinctive individual presence. All dance gracefully.

The choreography -- even the gang rumble has steps -- is magnetic. Especially captivating is the long ballet sequence that showcases the contrast between the crude, cruel outside world and the lovers' affectionate inner sanctum, an effect heightened by William Pierson's dreamy lighting.

Robin Higginbotham is convincing as the fiery, yet sympathetic Anita. Jacob Schneider and James Hayden Rodriguez are solid as leaders of their gangs. Ricky Dain Jones shines in the cleverly subversive "Gee, Officer Krupke" number. Gene Babb is the earnest shopkeeper, dismayed at the irrationality that surrounds him.

The inspired sets by Wm. McConnell Bozman include fire escapes suspended in mid-air, a background of skyscrapers whose shapes change depending on the lighting and girders that descend to frame the rumble site.

Cheryl Yancey's costumes include flashy dresses that evoke the Caribbean.

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