Heartfelt WEST SIDE STORY at Haddonfield Plays and Players

by Dennis Dougherty

Taking a show as venerable and well-known as WEST SIDE STORY, Haddonfield Plays & Players – and specifically, directors A.J. Garcia and C.J. Sikorski – have created an often heartfelt production of what can seem to be a larger-than-life musical. Aside from some minor opening night flubs and a few tentative moments, this is an evocative staging of the classic musical.

Modern day Romeo and Juliet: Tony and Maria, ((l to r) Julia Udine (Voorhees, NJ) & Andrew Boettcher (Cherry Hill, NJ)) in Haddonfield Plays and Players' WEST SIDE STORY. (Photo by David Gold)

From start to finish, Garcia and Sikorski move the show along with strong imagery, solid and inventive transitions and a clear understanding of the story and its emotions. The stage, the staging and the overall space at HP&P create an intimate production that uses what could be a deterrent to great effect, bringing the story right to the audience. The directors are aided by Kate Scharff’s wonderful choreography (with all due respect to Jerome Robbins) that only falters in some muddled moments during full cast numbers. But there is good energy and intensity in the dancing and it clearly meshes with the storytelling. Scharff gets particular kudos for making “sense” out of the “Somewhere” ballet (and making it meaningful) and for evoking the right sense of tension in “Officer Krupke” and “Cool” (which can often get caught up in just being “fun”). Here these “songs” help the audience grasp the characters’ emotions.

The production also is enhanced by what Andrew Cowles achieves with his lighting design, a stand-out among the production’s technical elements. His work brings richness and appropriate atmosphere to the whole endeavor. Sikorski’s set is simple and sparse, allowing this musical to play out on this somewhat limiting stage. The lit skyline that hovers over the show is a great touch, though the basic black background he created seemed a little “flat” at times.

At the heart of this show, though, are the characters that have become almost iconic to most fans of musical theatre. At HP&P, the cast is solid across the board. While not all are always “perfect” in executing the choreography, they go at it with the right energy and focus. A few ensemble members try a bit too hard when they are in the background of some scenes, but overall the cast is involved and present.

As Tony, Andrew Boettcher is a sweet and genuine presence, and nicely portrays the character’s determination and strength when Tony is forced to “be” a gang member again; though he can be a tad unsure of how to carry himself physically at times. He sings the role with a glorious voice tinged with emotion and intonation that is not preoccupied with being the traditional “classical” tenor. Opposite him, Julia Udine’s Maria is no mousy little girl. We see her strength and maturity evolve, but still with a touch of naiveté. She shows these attributes in small ways (physical interactions and attitudes) that add greatly to the performance, in addition to bringing a lovely voice to the role.

Among the supporting cast, Jackie Lamparelli Neville is a spirited Anita who can bat her eyes and toss off a remark with the right spin, but who also delivers the emotional goods in her pivotal Act II scenes (“A Boys Like That/I Have A Love” and her encounter with the Jets in Doc’s drugstore); Miles Dumbleton plays Riff with a certain laid-back physicality and charm – but still with the right combination of anger, brotherhood and purpose; and Ramón Licairac has style, assurance and a certain burning rage in his performance as Bernardo. Additionally, Steve Zellers is on-the-money as a cranky, inappropriate and offensive Lt. Schrank; Erin Gartland shows style and charm as Graziella; and Ryan Ruggles is a success at giving us both the bumbling sourness of Officer Krupke and the hilariously controlled silliness of his Gladhand.

Special attention must be paid to Bobby Walker’s Action, however. In a secondary role that could be “just another Jet,” Walker shines as he effectively embodies the anger, tension and frustration of a young man caught in the story’s circumstances. His physical and facial reactions are spot on and, as a prime example, the way he approaches his part in “Gee, Officer Krupke” is almost frightening and in some ways revelatory (to me anyway).

So, though you may have seen WEST SIDE STORY before, the directors’ vision on display here make it worth a trip to Haddonfield.

Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by A.J. Garcia and C.J. Sikorski
October 21 – November 7, 2010
Haddonfield Plays and Players
957 East Atlantic Avenue
Haddonfield, NJ

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1 comment

Alison November 12, 2010 - 4:40 pm

What’s to be said about the iconic MUSIC that is West Side Story?? Leonard Berenstein is the sole reason that WSS can be considered anything more than a Shakespeare rewrite. It is extremely disappointing and disrespectful to attempt to perform this classic without paying tribute to the beautiful orchestration. It’s not live theater without live music.


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