By Connor and Bri McFadden
The stage lights dim, allowing the full moon to cast an eerie shadow across the stage from behind us. It’s showtime. Popcorn? Check. Drink? Check. Moonlight’s talented cast and opening night of “West Side Story?” Check. The orchestra begins to play. All it takes is a few finger snaps from Riff (played by Taylor Simmons), and slowly, one by one, the Jets gang struts their way on stage to face off with the Sharks. The scene erupts with dancers from every corner of the stage soaring and leaping over the curbs and New York City street signs. From the very beginning the audience is reminded why “West Side Story” is a musical classic that stands alone.
This Moonlight production of “West Side Story” maximizes the stage like no other musical we have seen at the Moonlight before. With an incredibly talented and very able 32-member cast, combined with the accompaniment of the 29-member orchestra, conducted by Elan McMahan, this musical is not one you’ll soon forget.
The setting takes place on the harsh streets of the upper west side of New York City. It’s here where the White “Jets” and Puerto Rican “Sharks” battle for control of what they both consider their “turf.” The plot becomes complicated when a recovering gang member and Jet, Tony (Michael James Byrne) falls in love with his Shark rival’s sister Maria (Bella Gill).
The love-smitten duo has several unforgettable performances. Michael’s powerful and charming voice effortlessly hit all the high and low notes in “Something’s Coming,” and his voice takes the classic favorite “Tonight” to another level. Bella Gill’s voice is stunning and breathtaking. She easily hits the soaring heights of the vocally demanding number “Love Song.” It was as if this musical was written for her voice alone. With each note she steals the hearts and attention of the audience. Their duet “Somewhere” is truly the Moonlight must see of the summer.
West Side Story is a show with challenging choreography only the most talented and skilled dancers can perform. This was on full display in the song “The Dance at the Gym” where every move is tightly choreographed, and the Latin rhythms mixed with modern jazz sounds add intensity to this famous dance-off.
Moonlight Amphitheater is always a fun venue and it’s almost unanimous to hear people say it outperformed what they had thought it would be like when they experience it for the first time. We enjoy the hometown feel and love to see the director in the audience, or the mayor taking in the show from the front row.
After some polite conversation to the woman on our right, we discovered she was Carlotta Malone, one of 3 costume coordinators for the show. She was very friendly and was kind enough to share a few things that happened behind the scenes. We learned there were many costume adjustments and replacements that had to be made due to the difficulty of the choreography which caused the cast members to tear holes in the knees and bottoms of their pants. To our left was choreographer Hector Guerero who is one of only two people certified by Tony Robbins to reproduce the original choreography. We felt honored to take in the show seated next to someone so integral in keeping “West Side Story” close to the original production.
While “West Side Story” was an incredible show, it was also hard to take in at times. As the story plays out and the issues of race and prejudice escalate into violence, one could only notice how many similarities there are to what we see in our culture today. It was almost painful to watch how much hate there was, and yet the hate fueled this beautiful “West Side Story” of what it means to look beyond racial divides and see people for what’s behind the color of their skin. For this reason alone, the show is worth seeing. Go see “West Side Story” at Moonlight Amphitheatre.