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"West Side" on the west side

Theater Review: "West Side Story" at Roberts Wesleyan College 

"West Side" on the west side

In November, The Rochester Latino Theatre Company teamed up with RAPA for a successful production of "West Side Story" at the Kodak Performing Arts Center. This month, the classic musical travels westward to Roberts Wesleyan College, where it is getting a bang-up production by the Roberts Wesleyan College Community Theatre. As the name of the company suggests, this "West Side Story" brings together performers from the college, other schools, and Rochester's theater community in general -- a nice irony for a show in which the characters find it impossible to live together.

When considering a production of "West Side Story," I suppose the first question is, "How is the dancing?" Here, it's in the good hands of Bobby Conte, who did a great job choreographing "In the Heights" last spring at RAPA. He marshals a stage full of people into intricate and exciting patterns, and it's evident he knows how to tell a story in movement. The "Somewhere" ballet during Act Two, which can traditionally be pretty static, became a dramatic highlight of the show, involving all the young characters. Steve Vaughan's fight choreography was just as impressive; the knife fight between Riff and Bernardo was genuinely scary.

The cast is balanced between students and familiar faces of all ages from Blackfriars, Pittsford Musicals, and other venues -- and included some people making their stage debuts. They're all directed with a real flair for detail by Judith Ranaletta. Tony (Jimmy Boorum) seems a little shyer and more reserved than in other productions here, and Maria (Paige Kiefner) spunkier than usual, but once they meet, they convey a heady sense of young love. Kiefner is an Eastman senior with a lovely soprano voice; Boorum isn't in her class as a singer, but he's an excellent, committed actor. Katie Weber brings an unusually rich mezzo-soprano voice to the role of Anita, and when she joins with Kiefner in "I Have a Love," you'll think you're hearing a great American opera.

One of the exciting aspects of this show was not on the stage but above it: The orchestra was placed on top of the set. And it really was an orchestra. Twenty-three musicians, including six violinists and two cellists, directed by Roberts Wesleyan's Paul Shewan, and I imagine playing every note Leonard Bernstein put into his score.

Given that this production of "West Side Story" was so respectful of Bernstein's music, it's odd that neither he, Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, nor Jerome Robbins, were mentioned anywhere in the program. But these men created the musical, and the RWCCT have certainly brought it to exciting life.

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