Leaping, high-kicking, emoting and singing their hearts out, the 45-member cast of Berkeley’s Youth Musical Theater Company brings “West Side Story” to life in its production at El Cerrito High School running through tomorrow.
The musical has been around since the 1950s, but from the minute the cast -- all but three of whom are between seventh grade and college age -- hit the stage, it’s apparent that its themes of gang warfare, xenophobia and racism are just as relevant today as its accompanying plea for mutual understanding.
The production faced a significant challenge, opening on the same day that Contra Costa Civic Theatre, El Cerrito's resident community theater company, premiered the same musical just a few blocks away. But the Youth Musical Theater Company, a Berkeley based pre-professional training program for young actor-singers, managed to sell out the house for three of its performances last weekend, and the house was packed Friday night.
Every detail may not be perfect, but the way lead characters Tony (Joshua Herman) and Maria (Sophia Sinsheimer) look at each other, captivated and captivating, the infectious energy of rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks, especially in the song-and-dance numbers, and the musical backing of the 33-piece professional orchestra, carry the day.
For those unfamiliar with the details, West Side Story focuses on two rival New York gangs in the 1950s: the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, and the Jets, whose members are white. A reimagining of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" with the gangs standing in for the feuding Capulets and Montagues, the stage is set when Tony and Maria, each from one of the rival gangs, fall in love at a dance.
While the ‘50s slang is dated and today’s gangs make these guys look relatively mild –at least at first - as the plot develops and the actors race across the stage, swing their ladies at a local dance and carry off the climactic fight and near-rape scenes, the musical becomes all too realistic.
Which is not to suggest by any means that the show is a downer. There’s comic relief aplenty, especially in the person of Officer Krupke, played by Mike Vaughn, and three Jets girls who hilariously twit Maria in her number “I Feel Pretty.”
There are also some of the most stirring dance numbers ever, particularly “Cool,” in which Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting creates a play of light and shadow reminiscent of a Rembrandt as the dancers strut their stuff.
Director Jennifer Boesing has done a deft job of channeling the youngsters’ abundant talent into their respective roles, with Andrew Humann especially strong as Riff and standout performances by Lena Mayer as Velma and Maya Kell-Abrams as Graziella. Gilbert Johnson’s simple set gets the job done and Pam Crane and David Schleiffers deserve kudos for the choreography, beautifully realized by the cast.
'WEST SIDE STORY'
By Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim; presented by YMTC, a non-profit, Berkeley-based company
Direction by Jennifer Boesing
Musical Direction by David Möschler
Choreography by Pam Crane and David Schleiffers
Remaining Performances: July 21 and 22, 7:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinee July 22
Where: El Cerrito High Performing Arts Theater at 540 Ashbury Ave., El Cerrito
Tickets $12 - $24, available now at brownpapertickets.com