By Caroline Werenskjold of Oakton High School
One neighborhood. Two gangs. One love. Last weekend, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School told the classic story of forbidden love in their performance of "West Side Story."
With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, this Broadway classic first opened in 1957 and received multiple Tony Award nominations, including best musical. After over 800 Broadway performances, multiple tours, and a movie rendition, "West Side Story" is one of the most well-known musicals. It follows the tale of two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, fighting for territory in Manhattan in the 1950s. The Jets, the All-American boys led by Riff, have declared war with the Sharks, the Puerto-Rican immigrants led by Bernardo, and in the midst of the tension, Jets member and Riff’s best friend Tony falls in love at first sight with the sister of the Bernardo, Maria. When Tony accidentally kills Bernardo, only tragedy can follow as the two star-struck lovers try to find a way for them to be together.
Despite underdeveloped characterization and at times unsynchronized dance numbers, the cast as a whole was energetic and entertaining to watch, handling any technical difficulties with admirable ease. St. Andrew’s production took many risks, including having the ballad “Somewhere”, traditionally sung by Maria, instead sung by a male ensemble actor. Ultimately these risks paid off, giving new insight to a familiar musical.
St. Andrews’s cast was lead by a pair of talented and dynamic vocalists. Ben Coleman stood out not only for his portrayal of the lovesick Tony but for his harmonious voice as well. Coleman delivered accurate portrayals of Tony’s turbulent emotions, ranging from hopeless romance to devastating rage. He was not afraid to have fun with his character; his rendition of “Maria” was characterized with qualities of a hopeless romantic that as he spun around the stage head-over-heels in love. Acting opposite of him, Kiah Simms fully exuded the innocent nature of Maria, balancing Coleman’s animated emotions with a more gentle affection. Her breathtaking soprano harmonized beautifully with Coleman’s smooth tone, making their duets hauntingly beautiful and sincere.
A stand out among the cast was Abigail Stephenson as Maria’s lively friend Anita. Stephenson delivered the highest energy of the cast, giving life to Anita’s fiery Puerto Rican personality. When appropriate, she restrained her spirited energy and turned it into intense emotion, making her both dynamic and believable. In “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” sung after Bernardo is killed, Stephenson’s rich alto and heavy emotion combined stunningly with Simms’s passionate soprano, making the number a highlight of the show.
The ensemble as well worked well together, bringing out more energy in each other during the large ensemble scenes. The boys of the Jets gang in particular complimented each other well. Their performance of the comedic “Gee, Officer Krupke” was laugh-out-loud funny as ten guys gave ridiculous impressions of disturbed teenagers, bringing much needed comedic relief to the heavy plot.
Costumes were central to the believability of the show. Dressing the Jets members in cool tones of green and light blue while keeping the Sharks in deep reds or purples made it easy to tell the characters apart in large ensemble dance numbers. Costume changes were quick and each costume was period, keeping the show consistent and focused.
With a difficult combination of long dance numbers and intricate melodies, "West Side Story" would be an ambitious choice for any high school. Nevertheless, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School gave an honorable performance and showed us that love indeed conquers all.