REVIEW: Get Ready to Rumble with GLOW’s Dynamic “West Side Story”

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Joslynn Cortes and Arik Vega play Anita and Bernardo in GLOW Lyric Theatre's "West Side Story." Photo courtesy of GLOW.
Joslynn Cortes and Arik Vega play Anita and Bernardo in GLOW Lyric Theatre’s “West Side Story.” Photo courtesy of GLOW.


GLOW Lyric Theatre, South Carolina’s only professional opera company, launched its Summer Season this week with two vastly different adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”: the definitive operatic version, Gounod’s 1867 “Roméo et Juliette,” and Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 “West Side Story.”

The company’s mounting of “West Side Story” is an ambitious, dazzling spectacle of compelling choreography, stupendous vocal artistry and cohesive, fluid storytelling by Artistic Director Jenna Tamisiea.

Not only does this programming honor Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, but it also propels GLOW’s objective of presenting socially-relevant works. Tamisiea and husband, Christian Elser (General Director and Music Director), lead last season’s diverse bill of “The Hot Mikado” and “The Wiz” that, in happenstance, came on the heels of the Charleston church massacre.

 With the contentious presidential election cycle underway, this year’s timely theme revolves around immigration and assimilation and is reflected in GLOW’s major updating of the ethnicities of the Montagues and Capulets in Gounod’s opera, as well as partnering with Hispanic Alliance SC, Spanish Writers Club and Palmetto Luna Arts.

And while Arthur Laurents’ libretto for “West Side Story” already provides cordial fodder for GLOW’s aim of inclusion – the feuding families are replaced with rival New York City street gangs the Jets and the Sharks – Tamisiea has taken great pains in casting to achieve to an authentic Latino cast (the Sharks) and a refreshing coterie of both Caucasians and African-Americans in the Jets.

As the ill-fated young couple Tony and Maria, nationally-acclaimed tenor Brandon Snook and Furman alumna Katherine Sandoval Taylor are more vigorous and talented than one could ever hope.

Snook returns to Glow Lyric Theatre after previous appearances in “The Pirates of Penzance” and “Die Fledermaus” and gives a brazen, passionate portrayal of the Polish-Irish hero that has abandoned gang life and risen above the neighborhood turf war. But he is thrust into the fray again after becoming instant with the head Shark’s sister. Snook delivers a powerful “Something’s Coming” and his “Maria” sparkles with resonance and operatic tendrils.

Miss Taylor, who has worked extensively in the Asheville area and in Boston, is an actress flush with sincerity and brimming with dramatic intensity. From her playful “I Feel Pretty” to her duet with Snook in the show’s signature ballad “Tonight” (the soothing melody that repeats throughout the story), Miss Taylor eloquently distills the essence of a naïve teenager in both the delicacy and throes of first love. And this remarkable soprano’s rolling “R’s” are second to none.

Joslynn Cortes also returns to GLOW after her smashing turn last season as Katisha in “The Hot Mikado” and Eveline in “The Wiz.” Cortes is an exuberant and engaging Anita (a heralded role originated on stage and in film by award-winners Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno) as she leads the female ensemble in the comedic ode to the new land in “America” and splendidly harmonizes a beautiful “A Boy Like That” with Taylor.

As opposing leaders of the ethnic packs, Aaron McKenzie (Riff) and Arik Vega (Bernardo) both offer inspiring performances in vocal timbre and marvelous, physical rumbles thrillingly conceived by fight consultant David Sebran.

Other notable contributions are made by Ben Moore as Big Deal (he played The Tin Man in “The Wiz” last year) and Ediberto Ortega as Chino.

And local actor Neil Shurley gives an admirable showing as Doc, Tony’s employer and the sole voice of sanity in the story.

In addition, there is another underlying thematic component that will resonate with modern audiences and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. The characters of Officer Krupke, played by longtime GLOW performer and outgoing president of the Greenville Chorale Steve Compton and Lt. Shrank (Jeff Beruan) make no qualms about their disdain of the Puerto Ricans and regularly use threats of force. Beruan has a non-singing role here but even his suave, deeply robust speaking voice portends an exquisite basso performance as Frère Laurent in “Roméo et Juliette.”

Of course, Jerome Robbins’ original revolutionary choreography is front and center and practically another character in “West Side Story.” Carolina Ballet Artistic Director Hernan Justo valiantly builds on Robbins’ iconic steps that are as integral to “West Side Story” as the music. From the prologue’s ballet to the Mambo at the dance and the climactic “Rumble,” Justo’s moves are top-notch perfection.

The ensemble numbers are vibrant and multi-faceted, and it’s not difficult to spot the professional dancers in this show such Matt Harvey, Madeline Harvey, Laura Mortimer and Martin Justo of Carolina Ballet and the skilled dancers from Dance Arts Greenville, Hannah Underwood, Mary Galemmo, Sofia Justo and Jena Brooks.

Henry Wilkinson’s gritty set design and Maranda DeBusk’s emphatic lighting (especially in the dream sequence) greatly add to the tone of this perilous urban landscape.

Music Director Christian Elser conducts the modest 7-piece band that projects much more elaborately than one would expect, with many of the strings, reeds and brass reproduced on keyboards. Bernstein’s Latin-infused score usually calls for two or three times that many musicians.

And this production succeeds in spades in spite of a mediocre sound system at McAlister Auditorium. The vocals compensate efficiently, but some of the dialogue is amplified with a hollow effect, as if it’s reverberating in an echo chamber. As a result, some of the libretto and Stephen Sondheim’s overlapping lyrics (particularly in the accents) does at times get muddled unfortunately.

Read Carolina Curtain Call’s interview with GLOW General Director Christian Elser.

Read Paul Hyde’s review of “Roméo et Juliette” in the Greenville News.

“West Side Story” continues Saturday, July 30 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and “Roméo et Juliette” continues at 3 p.m. All performances are at McAlister Auditorium, Furman University, 3300 Poinsett Highway in Greenville. Visit www.glowlyric.com or call 864-294-3267.

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