“Someway, Somehow” WEST SIDE STORY Exceeds All Expectations

by Paul Recupero

Leading cast members from Upper Darby Summer Stage’s Mainstage production, WEST SIDE STORY playing through August 14 at Upper Darby Performing Arts Center: (clockwise, seated left): Rachael Lipson of Havertown as Maria, Megan Smith of Springfield as Anita, Stephen Langley of Drexel Hill as Riff, and Matthew Iacoviello of Drexel Hill as Tony. (Photo credit: Cate Paxson)

Loosely based on one of Shakespeare’s more relatable tragedies, WEST SIDE STORY stands as one of the most popular musicals for high school and community theatre. For the three of you reading who are unfamiliar with the plot, it involves two altruistic lovers of different ethnicities searching for happiness amidst the harsh gang-infested backdrop of NYC. Although frequently produced, WEST SIDE STORY’s complex themes and intricate dances make it an extremely difficult musical to perform. Nevertheless, because of its esteem, audiences are usually willing to overlook the shortfalls that afflict many productions.

Enter Upper Darby Summer Stage. I had a slight familiarity with this organization, having attended an impressive performance of CAROUSEL over ten years ago, so I already knew the high caliber of youth musicals the group puts out. (Make no mistake, this is not a kids’ summer theatre camp.) As a result, I went into their current mainstage production with admittedly lofty expectations…and I’m stunned (pleasantly so) to report that they soared over every one.

I don’t shower praise where it isn’t due, so let me describe what worked. First, the acting of the entire cast is sharp, specific and solid; there’s simply no weak link here. The fluid blocking by director Matthew Cloran keeps each tightly-paced scene engaging. Everyone sings well and dances even better. Kudos to Cloran and Kevin Dietzler, who crafted the exciting choreography prevalent throughout but especially notable during the prologue and the dance at the gym.

The archaic “love at first sight” romance of Tony and Maria, an area that falls flat in lesser productions, is believable here due to the compelling talents of Matt Iacoviello and Rachael Lipson, well-paired as the star-crossed lovers. Although all the voices in the show are great, Lipson’s beautiful soprano vocals wowed me from her very first note.

There are too many strong performances to list, but Stephen Langley as smooth gang leader Riff and Megan Smith as the saucy Anita particularly shine. And, in what could have been unremarkable roles, Chris Monaco as bigoted police lieutenant Schrank and Jeffrey Dietzler as disillusioned drug store owner Doc memorably showcase their acting chops. I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention the unseen orchestra, which, under the direction of Gina Giachero, is fantastic. Finally, Kathryn Mackay’s meticulous lighting design demonstrates how shadows can be just as effective as spots.

Sure, I could nitpick and note that Iacoviello’s usually robust voice at times dropped too soft in his opening solos, and that the stage occasionally looked cramped (the gym scene comes to mind), but these minor quibbles are hardly worth mentioning. It all comes back to the tight ensemble, who complement each other in an amazingly interwoven way that must be seen to be believed. (To this end, I commend Cloran’s choice to have the cast take one company bow.)

The real crime is that there are so few performances. No fan of musical theatre should miss this powerhouse production.

Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Matthew Cloran,
Assisted by Brian Walsh
Musical Direction by Eric P. Thompson
Choreography by Kevin Dietzler
August 7 – 14, 2010
Upper Darby Summer Stage
Upper Darby Performing Arts Center
601 North Lansdowne Avenue
Drexel Hill, PA 19026

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