Actors Playhouse triumphs again with 'West Side Story'

CORAL GABLES -- After Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre staged the iconic, beloved musical "West Side Story" in 1997, the widely and deservedly respected and honored regional theater won a Carbonell Award for "Best Production of a Musical."

Expect at least a nomination for another such award, which recognizes excellence in South Florida theater, for the current production, playing through Feb. 21 on the company's mainstage.

The nearly-flawless production excels in so many ways, you're left speechless after witnessing the show, directed with sensitivity and an attention to detail by artistic director David Arisco. He and his production team are giving us a heartbreaking, tender, tough, humorous and playful "West Side Story," an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" set amid gang warfare in 1950s New York City.

Aside from perhaps sound issues that made it a challenge to understand the actors at times, one could spend several hours describing powerful scene after powerful scene.

There's the balcony sequence when Tony (a terrific Tim Quartier) stands almost atop a ladder leading to Maria's house, seemingly oblivious to the fact he could fall. He's too busy devoting his full attention to his love ("I saw you and the world went away," he sings, possibly the most powerful and descriptive lyrics in the show). In this scene, the two touch and speak to one another with an urgency that might suggest they're a couple of 60 years, former childhood sweethearts, who will suddenly be separated forever.

Then there's the heartfelt "wedding" scene, during which the pair pretend to get married and utter their vows in a kneeling position. Maria (an outstanding Sarah Amengual), clad in a white outfit and veil, speaks so earnestly, lovingly and tenderly, you fully understand why Tony, in an earlier scene, fell in love with her upon first sight. 

Such gentle, affectionate scenes make the later heart-shattering moments feel that much more tragic.

Even if you're not prone to crying, you'll likely need a tissue after witnessing the following: a heartbroken Maria hovering over Tony's lifeless body after one of the sharks, Chino (played with a dangerous look in his eye and as a man on a mission by Jose Luaces) shoots him to death-- just as Tony, thinking Maria has been killed, discovers she's still full of life. In this riveting production, a relieved Tony begins running into his beloved's arms when that gunshot kills Tony, turning Maria into a shocked, shaken soul. Even in her state, and with Tony dead, Amengual's Maria seems like a protective mother bear, hovering protectively over her beloved's remains, daring any of the Sharks or the Jets to touch him. While watching this unfold, you can't help but think back to some of the lyrics from the song "One Hand, One Heart."

Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart;
Even death won't part us now.

The show's moving lyrics are the words of the legendary, Pulitzer-Prize winning composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His involvement in the musical as lyricist, in a sense pairing him with Shakespeare, the author of the source material, made sense. Sondheim's the William Shakespeare of musical theater. Like the Bard, Sondheim's achieved greatness over his long, illustrious career. His carefully chosen, descriptive and cleverly-rhymed, intricate lyrics and complex, elegant and sophisticated music deftly capture the essence of a character, scene and story as a whole. In "West Side Story's" case, Leonard Bernstein composed the unforgettable, hummable mood-capturing score.

Sondheim has never shied away from dark, disturbing topics either as composer, lyricist or both.

An artistic director needs no justification, at any time, to stage a masterpiece such as "West Side Story." With that said, Arisco's remounting feels right today in 2016. Gun violence and senseless hate permeating our society make such words as "Why do you kill?" and "We all killed him" (meaning Tony) so much more resonant.

Hate's opposite, love, makes the musical timely -- and timeless -- as well. There's a morally grey area that hovers over the show, captured so eloquently in the lyrics "When loves come so strong, there is no right or wrong."

Meanwhile, the current immigration debate comes to mind while listening to the Jets speak to their bitter rivals from Puerto Rico which such vitriol.

Still, as much as the gangs despise each other, and despite the tragic ending, you can't help feel the Sharks and the Jets learned just a little bit about senseless grudges as they team up to carry Tony's corpse away at the end of the show.

"West Side Story," like "Romeo and Juliet" and Shakespeare's other tragedies, aren't completely depressing. There are merry, playful moments in the musical, including the song "I Feel Pretty." She sings it to describe how she feels as she announces her intention to marry.

A supremely talented cast, accompanied by a lush sounding, live orchestra, performs the Bernstein/Sondheim gems as though singing were as natural to them as breathing. Cast members wrap their powerful, expressive voices around the songs, and achieve the proper tone for each. Sondheim's sometimes tounge-twisting lyrics are a challenge for any actor, but this cast fares great. And you can't help but admire the sustained, high-pitched notes some cast members execute with seeming ease.

Dancing is an integral part of "West Side Story," telling the tale as much as the dialogue and the music. While it might be hard to replicate Jerome Robbins' original choreography (he also directed the original Broadway production), the Actors Playhouse production's choreographer, Ron Hutchins, deftly tells the story through dance. Whether it's the Jets' flight-like motions, flapping their arms like free birds in the territory which they feel they own, or the forceful kicking and spinning, the dancing deftly conveys emotion.

The tension between the Jets and Sharks is palpable, with members of each gang standing tall and firm opposite each other, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. In a smart production choice, Arisco has one of the Sharks wipe his hand on his pants after shaking hands with one of the Jets. It's as though the hand belonging to the Jet is somehow diseased. 

There's also conflict and contrast expressed through song, as when the Jets and Sharks sing ominously that their brawl is "tonight." At the same time, over their voices, Maria reprises the joyous, gentle number "Tonight," previously sung as a duet with Tony. The gentle notes of Maria's song clash in a discordant manner with the threatening "Tonight" sung by the gangs, hinting of the disorder and chaos to come.

Those trying, but failing, to keep peace are Lt. Schrank (an imposing Ken Clement) and Officer Krupke (a milder but still authoritative Michael Freshko).

The cast members don't appear to be "acting"; they fully inhabit their characters.

The cast is led by a dreamy, charming, smiling and dashing Tim Quartier as Tony.

Sarah Amengual's Maria is so gentle, sweet and happy that she takes on an ethereal quality, accentuated by her pure white dress (the costumes were designed by Ellis Tillman).

Drew Arisco's Action (a Jet) has an impulsiveness that suits his character's name perfectly.

The leader of the Jets, Riff, is played with a fierce pride and commanding aura by Theo Lencicki.

Bravo also to Jacqueline Lopez, who nails the role of the tomboyish, hard-edged and eager Jet-wannabe strangely named "Anybodys."

On the Sharks' side, Marco Antonio Santiago conveys a quiet pride, dignity and menace as Bernardo, the Puerto Rican gang's leader, but he convincingly explode into anger when necessary.

Maria's big sister and Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita, is played by Isabelle McCalla as an older sibling who's equally effective at protecting and loving while at other times admonishing her little sister. The supremely talented McCalla has a striking and commanding demeanor and tough presence as the no-nonsense young woman whose pride and charisma comes across clearly. The actress also imparts a convincing vulnerability and resiliency when confronted at the drugstore belonging to Doc (George Schiavone, at first mild-mannered but later noticeably exasperated at the constant hate and violence).

Cast members sing, dance and act on scenic designer Tim Bennett's old, rusty-looking, curving exterior, featuring red bricks. Set pieces, including those in Doc's Drugstore, featuring period detail, move seamlessly on and off the stage and rotate smoothly to keep the action flowing uninterrupted.

Eric Nelson's lighting is appropriately dimmed when necessary, such as during intimate scenes between Tony and Maria. At other times, such as at the school dance, Nelson has designed vibrant, colorful lighting, appropriately capturing a mood of revelry.

Tillman's costumes differentiate the gangs; the Sharks are clad in purple and other dark colored clothing, perhaps to suggest their more subtle nature, while the Jets sport light, untucked garments and jeans. Each costume defines character. 

Fix the sound problems, and it's hard to find fault with this fabulous "West Side Story."

Chalk up another triumph for Actors Playhouse, the winner of many Carbonells over the years.