Young cast features a gang of talent

Musical: Merely Players' production of `West Side Story' uses high school actors in a high-energy tale of star-crossed lovers.


Arundel Live

April 29, 2004|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Merely Players' production of West Side Story is a triumph that fulfills the company's mission to offer youths the opportunity to get involved in theater. And it is an appropriate tribute that it is dedicated to the memory of volunteer Evan Brierley, who died last month.

With his innovative staging and superb choice of a mainly high-school-age cast, director Jeffrey Hitaffer brings magic to the main stage of Chesapeake Arts Center.

Hitaffer boldly places a 14-piece orchestra at the rear of the deep stage to create visual excitement during the overture and add unobtrusive zest throughout the performance while seeming to expand stage space. Hitaffer, a former police officer, adds essential near-frightening realism to the gang fights, along with exuberant juvenile hijinks to the "Gee, Officer Krupke!" number.

He uses every inch of the stage for the lively dance numbers, adding height in the fence extending across the rear to provide a spectacular entrance for the cast members who scale it.

The erection of a two-level fire escape that becomes Maria's version of Juliet's balcony also extends the space, as does moving the rival gang action halfway down the two theater aisles to entirely and brilliantly utilize theater space.

While choreographer Jodi Adkins, 22, retains a suggestion of Jerome Robbins' original work, she updates it with a graceful mambo that becomes increasingly frenetic.

Adkins has transformed the cast into a first-rate dancing chorus. Along with Hitaffer, Adkins brings freshness to this 47-year-old masterpiece with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents.

West Side Story's theme of star-crossed lovers caught between rival gangs and racial tensions continues to be relevant. And Bernstein's incomparable score looms large, with perfectly wedded lyrics penned in 1957 by a then-27-year old Sondheim in classics like "Tonight," "Somewhere," "America" and "Maria."

Perfectly cast as the young lovers are South River High School's Elena Crall as Maria, whose brother is a member of the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, and Broadneck High's Andrew Lincoln as Tony, a former leader of the rival Jets. Crall invests a sweet innocence and convincing devotion to her Maria, and Lincoln's Tony conveys the joy of discovering love along with nobility in his rejection of gang warfare. Both sing beautifully in well-matched voices to Bernstein's score.

In a cast where the norm is excellent, it is hard to single out particular performers, but Severna Park High School junior Rachel Scott is outstanding in bringing Anita to life, singing beautifully during her "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" duet with Crall's Maria.

Other noteworthy performances are Matt Keffer as Riff, Jon Nuckols as Bernardo, Hana Thornhill as Anybodys, Erin Linnell as Graziella, Jacob Thornhill as Action, Loghan Bazan as Consuelo along with Jamie Hanna, who was also fight choreographer.

West Side Story continues tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. with 3 p.m. matinee performances Saturday and Sunday at Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park. For tickets and information, call 410-636-6597.

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