Times Beacon Record Review: The Jets and the Sharks clash again at Northport’s Engeman

by TBR StaffSeptember 30, 2015

Nikko Kimzin and Sam Wolf in a scene from ‘West Side Story.’ Photo by Michael DeCristofaro

By Charles J. Morgan

When dance master Jerome Robbins inspired Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim to come up with “West Side Story,” they in turn went to The Bard for his “Romeo and Juliet,” morphing the Guelphs and Ghibellines — that’s the Montagues and Capulets of Verona — into the street gangs, the Jets and Sharks. The “star-crossed lovers” became Tony and Maria. This gift to musical theater hit the boards at the Engeman two weeks ago, and the boards are still rattling.

The entire production is built around dance. The pirouettes, arabesques and jetes were neatly comingled with the modern interpretive method to produce a mathematically perfect, yet emotionally penetrating terpsichorean feast.

At the head of all this was the choreography skills of Jeffry Denman and his two assistants Lauren Cannon and Trey Compton, who also acted as fight choreographer. This talented team gave the audience a night of dance the excellence of which your scribe has not seen in his near decade of writing “criticism.”

They say that the “devil is in the details” but not in this production. Imagine if you will a six-foot-high chain link fence running from upstage center down to stage left … suggesting urban schoolyards. This “prop” was climbed on, jumped on and over by male dancers of the Jets and Sharks in their attempts to escape … in tempo. They actually scaled the fence, landing on the other side on the beat — an incredible act of choreography.

Overall direction was in the always capable hands of Igor Goldin (“The Producers,” “Evita”). If one prescinds from the dance numbers, his blocking and interpretation efforts were carried through with exemplary professionalism.

Outstanding among the dancers were Scott Shedenhelm of the Jets and Karli Dinardo in the role of Anita. Shedenhelm was at his best in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” by far the funniest and most clever number in the show. Dinardo scored talent-wise in “America.”

The leads were handled skillfully by Zach Trimmer as Tony and Samantha Williams as Maria. Both have fittingly tender voices; he a more lyrical tenor, she a mellow, yet strong soprano. They excelled as the star-crossed lovers.

The leader of the Jets, Riff, was played by Sam Wolf who pits himself and his gang against Bernardo, played by Nikko Kimzin and his Sharks. The battles of Sharks vs. Jets is the dance armature of the play, and these two lead their factions brilliantly in dancing, acting and singing.

Among the musical numbers, the “Jet Song” really set the theme of pride and struggle. “Dance at the Gym” by the whole company brought out the animosity that almost erupted in violence. The tender “Tonight” by Wolf and Williams presented the balcony scene in all its romance. The mordant “America” that also showcased the patent talent of Ashley Perez Flanagan as Graciela, hit hard musically at the state of society in both the USA and Puerto Rico.

The cast also included Mike Baerga, Josh Bates, Christian Bufford, Mark T. Cahill, Nick Casaula, Victoria Casillo, Joey Dippel, Jon Drake, Roy Flores, Eric Greengold, Joan Heeringa, Melissa Hunt, Gregory Kollarus, Leer Leary, Rick Malone, Ashley Marinelli, Kelly Methven, Kaitlin Niewoehner, Joseph Rosario, Tori Simeone and Marquez Stewart who all did a fabulous job.Trimmer and Williams also performed romantically in “One Hand, One Heart.” And there was that Officer Krupke number that was most memorable.

Piercing live music was led by James Olmstead on keyboard with assistance from Craig Coyle; Robert Dalpiaz and Joel Levy on reeds; the indomitable Joe Boardman on trumpet with Steve Henry and Pete Auricchio; Brent Chiarello and Frank Hall on trombone; bass was Russell Brown with the reliable Josh Endlich on percussion. This ensemble was at its best in the staccato numbers of both Jets and Sharks such as “Dance at the Gym” and especially in “The Rumble.”

The Engeman spares no opposition when it produces a massive piece of entertainment like “West Side Story.”

All elements of the production including costume design by Tristan Raines, set design by DT Willis, lighting by Zack Blane and sound design by Laura Shubert were masterfully integrated into a sophisticated, articulated and authentic whole.

Many critics a few years back tried to see a “social significance” dimension latent in this show. On TV one described it as “… a slice of New York life.” Nonsense, of course. It was Shakespeare with a life of its own as true musical theater.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport, will present evening performances of “West Side Story” on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 8. Tickets are $74 on Saturday evenings, $69 all other performances. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

This version corrects the spelling of Jeffry Denman’s name.

The Long Island Press Review:‘West Side Story’ Is a Knockout Hit at Northport’s Engeman Theater

by Elise Pearlman on September 30, 2015

“West Side Story” had the audience on its feet applauding wildly and shouting bravos after its first Saturday night performance at the John W. Engeman Theater. The musical saga of star-crossed lovers whose Manhattan romance is doomed by cultural discord is not only simply sensational, but the perfect choice for the Northport theater’s 50th production.

The show itself has some stellar history too. “West Side Story” first graced Broadway in 1957. It brought together an extraordinarily talented creative team: composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, playwright Arthur Laurents, and director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. According to Larry Stempel’s Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, the production ushered in a new era by blurring the lines between musical theater and opera while adding social commentary to the mix.

Showcasing what many consider to be Bernstein’s finest work, the musical also gave these legendary artists the opportunity to stretch themselves as never before. It was the first time that Sondheim ever wrote lyrics for a Broadway production; for Laurents, it was his first Broadway libretto.

If the story line of forbidden love gone terribly awry sounds familiar, it should. “West Side Story” is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which tells of the tragedy ensnaring the romantically linked offspring of two feuding noble families, the Montagues and Capulets. Fast-forward another four centuries to the 1950s, and “West Side Story” is the urban version.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of the intoxication and blind innocence of first love countered by senseless rivalry and the unceasing desire for revenge still rings true today. Under Igor Goldin’s masterful direction at the Engeman Theater, the cast brings this New Age Romeo and Juliet, this blend of light and dark, hope and heartache, comedy and despair, to glorious fruition.

Set in a blue-collar neighborhood in the Upper West Side in 1957, the venue is far from pretty, yet this forsaken piece of turf bound by brick walls and chain-link fences is the subject of intense rivalry between two street gangs, the Jets, the established white ethnics, and the Sharks, the Puerto Rican newcomers.

A dance at a local gymnasium brings the warring gangs together on what is supposedly neutral territory. As the Jets and Sharks assert their superiority by alternately usurping the dance floor, something magical happens. Amidst the whirlwind of frenetic movement, Tony, a Jet, and Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the Shark’s leader, spot each other from across the room and are drawn together like magnets. Both are immediately smitten, but Bernardo has brought Maria from Puerto Rico so she could marry his friend, Chico.

While his friends are riveted in the gritty here and now, Tony, played by Zach Trimmer, is dreaming of a better life. Carl Sagan once spoke of the optimistic human belief that there is something marvelous around the corner yet undiscovered, a vision that Tony brings to life when he sings “Something’s Coming.”

Later that night, Maria (Samantha Williams) stands on her tenement apartment’s fire escape with Tony below, and the chemistry is palpable. His serenade, “Tonight,” is a joyous prelude to the uncharted territory that is love. Young Williams’ mellifluous singing voice is astounding. Trimmer renders “Maria,” so tenderly that he makes it a fitting tribute to the transformative power of love.

Shakespeare liked to alternate between moods in his plays, and “West Side Story” follows his lead, with romance giving way to comedy–before the tragedy you know is coming.

In the sardonic song, “America,” Rosalia (Ashley Pérez Flanagan) extols the virtues of Puerto Rico, while the other Shark Girls–Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Karli Dinardo), Francisca (Victoria Casillo) and Marguerita (Ashley Marinelli) counter with wisecracks. The girls are dressed in gorgeous jewel-toned dresses made for swirling and flaunting. The song is incredibly amusing; the dancing spectacular. It’s pure eye candy that delights the heart and the soul. Kudos to Tristan Raines for the costume design.

What a cast! Dinardo excels as Anita, the worldly, “older” sister to Maria, who has just come to America and is inexperienced when it comes to the opposite sex. Their close relationship makes their final duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” all the more bittersweet.
Riff (Sam Wolf) and Bernardo (Nikko Kimzin) are both effectively commanding and conflicted in their roles as respective leaders of the Jets and Sharks who must decide the terms of the rumble that will settle the turf dispute once and for all.

The action slowly builds momentum, with anticipation reaching its apex towards the end of Act I, when the whole company gathers to sing “Tonight.” Absolutely breathtaking, it is musical theater at its best.

This show demands great choreography, and Jeffry Denman, assisted by Lauren Cannon, and assistant director/fight choreographer, Trey Compton, deliver it big time. Some of the finest dancing is showcased in “Somewhere,” a dreamy, wishful sequence in which Maria and Tony watch dancers dressed in white move blithely across the stage with joyous grace despite the rumble’s tragic ending. As Trimmer, Williams and company sing, Ashley Pérez Flanagan gives an outstanding solo that further lights up this poignant scene.

Also worthy of mention is the hilarious song, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” featuring the well-choregraphed antics of Action (Scott Shedenhelm) and the rest of the Jets. In Act II, it offers needed comic relief as the world that these young adults know starts to spiral out of control.

As always, the band at the Engeman, led by musical director James Olmstead on keyboard, is topnotch and does full justice to Bernstein’s musical genius. The music and lyrics linger on long after you leave the theater.

“West Side Story” runs through November 8, but the popular show will likely sell out soon. The John W. Engeman Theater is located at 250 Main St., Northport. For more information, call (631) 261-2900 or by visitwww.engemantheater.com.

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