A stunning production of `West Side Story'

Classic: Director Michael Quinn and his young cast have created a dynamic show for the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre that will be hard to top this season.

May 27, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After learning of the inexperience of the director and cast, I wasn't optimistic about Sunday's performance of "West Side Story" at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre.

How could "West Side Story," the masterpiece born of the collaborative efforts of three theater geniuses -- composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins -- be turned over to novices?

"West Side Story" looms large, with its brilliant Bernstein score, perfectly wedded lyrics penned by a 27-year-old Sondheim, and the exuberance expressed by pre-eminent choreographer Robbins.

Add in the timeless tale of young love and hate that is Romeo and Juliet, but transported to 1950s Manhattan and into the center of racial tensions between street gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets.

Michael Quinn's last directing assignment had been high school productions more than 18 years ago. He also was listed as "stage combat choreographer."

Tiffani Baldwin, the show's choreographer, has lived in New York City for the past year and was available to the company only on weekends. The music director was Doug Yetter, often criticized for over-synthesizing and substituting electronics for musical instruments.

Adding to the dim prospects was that a 17-year-old, Jeremy Ragsdale, was to play Tony and a 15-year-old, Amanda Smear, was playing Maria. And 75 percent of the cast members supporting the leads were high school kids.

So much for my premature pessimism: Director Quinn and his high school-age cast have created a stunningly dynamic show that will be hard to top this summer season.

In an amazing display of athleticism, the dancers were fearless, as only teen-agers can be, scaling fences and fire escapes. They burst onto the stage, some leaping from 10-foot-high rooftops.

The set, with its brick buildings, chain-link fence and iron-railing balconies, was perfect for the exciting choreography. And while I missed the live brass and strings in the "Prologue" and felt cheated by Yetter's synthesized version, I soon forgot my misgivings and became grateful for the insistent beat that supported the young male dancers.

Baldwin wisely followed Jerome Robbins' original choreography. But adding an edge to it, Quinn, as "combat choreographer," created fight scenes between the Jets and the Sharks so realistic that I was concerned somebody would be injured.

As Riff, the leader of the Jets, 17-year-old Max Gross does well by both the "Jet Song" and the sardonic "Officer Krupke," singing, dancing and acting with great skill. His counterpart -- Sharks leader Diesel -- is equally well-played by Bradley Moore, a May graduate of Annapolis High School. Moore is a strong actor, singer and dancer.

Among the female dancers, none is more remarkable than 15-year-old Ashley Adkins, a convincing actress who scales fences remarkably easily. Amanda Cimaglia as Graziella steals every dance scene she is in. The role of Anita is played by adult Jennifer Sjolie, who stops the show with her spirited dancing in "America" and has strong acting skills.

The two leading roles are well-played by Smear as Maria and Ragsdale as Tony. Smear sings beautifully, reaching every high note and expressing every nuance of the melody.

Ragsdale has a pleasing voice and conveys the music's emotional intensity. On Sunday, his body microphone failed during his singing of "Maria," a disappointment that I hope will not recur. Both young actors conveyed young love remarkably well.

Kudos to adults Anthony Anzalone, who plays Doc, to Belva Bowcutt, who plays Gladys, and to Don Becker, who is Shrank. Other outstanding teen-age actors include Brianne Cobuzzi, Jessica Hyman and Jason Vellon.

"West Side Story" continues at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre at 8: 30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays until June 26. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students. Call 410-268-9212 for times and reservations.

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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