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A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

“West Side Story,” the 12th annual summer musical theatre production of the FSCJ Artists Series, has opened at the Wilson Center and will run through July 30, 2017. Beth Harvey, Director of the Wilson Center for the Arts, conceived and produced the first production of the series. The shows have become a showcase for theatre students throughout the area, and the productions have become bigger and better with each passing year.

West Side Story” was composed by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. Choreographer Jerome Robbinsdirected the original production, which debuted in 1957. This now classicork is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements in the history of musical theatre, a love story based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” that has become as celebrated and esteemed as the Bard’s original telling.

Remarkably, the musical tells the entire story compressed into two tempestuous days filled with love and death. Two rival gangs with different ethnic backgrounds, the Jets (Polish-American) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican), battle over a share of the neighborhood turf, while Tony and Maria meet at a neighborhood dance. He belongs to the Jets; her possessive brother belongs to the Sharks.

“West Side Story” has been so successful because its songs immediately became and have remained favorites. Just to hear that extraordinary music once again sung and danced so well by this large, talented, and energetic cast is alone worth the modest price of admission. They include “Maria,” “Somewhere,“ “America,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Tonight,” and are all so good it would be difficult to chose a favorite.

Artistic Director Erik DeCicco and Vocal Director Aaron DeCicco have a cast of over fifty high school students from North Florida who are both extremely talented and serious musical theatre students. “West Side Story” is equally known for its choreography and Choreographer Amber Daniels and her assistant Brian Alford have created dances that are big and bold and fill the entire stage — and the aisles as well. The quality and excitement of the dancing was met with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The Prelogue was an original and clever addition, which consisted of an original RAP designed to capture the spirit of the show and advise the audience toward the end to keep the aisles clear, and their phones silenced. The lyrics were composed by Talia Kolenc and the beat by Dylan Lewis.

The nineteen-piece orchestra led by Music Director Dr. Paul Weikle was fantastic, with perfect timing.

Set Designer Johnny Pettegrew and Scene Shop Supervisor Robert Rupp continue to top their past achievements in each succeeding year. This show opens with an entire block of New York City portrayed on stage. It is massive, with multiple houses, up to three stories. But the real magic comes as the back-stage crew of some twenty students flips the structures around to portray at various times a soda shop, a dress shop, a bedroom, a cellar, a gym and an exterior fire-escape. Words cannot describe it, we were truly mesmerized.

The costume designs by Carmala Pitts and Dorinda Quiles took us back to New York in the fifties, and included bright dresses with Latin flair for some of the women.

The superb light designs by Misty deSmit created many of the on-stage moods, ranging from fight scenes to the colorful group dancing scene in the gym.

Malik Bilbrew and Cassidy Goldman in the lead roles of Tony and Maria were excellent. Their singing was superb, and both gave spirited performances.  At age 17, Mr. Bilbrew has an impressive resume. We had the pleasure of seeing him in “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “The Little Mermaid” at Theatre Jacksonville, and he appeared last year in the Summer Musical’s “Cats” as Munkustrap.  Ms. Goldman currently attends UNF as a sophomore; she also appeared in last year’s production as one of the cats.

While most of the cast sang in the large group numbers, several actors had individual solos, including Taylor Hendricks as Riff. Alice Woodward sang a haunting “One Hand, One Heart,” while Jay Sevilla was a real spitfire as Anita and could really belt out her songs.

Director DeCicco had a few new approaches to the casting. Following a trend toward more women police officers in today’s world, he cast Halie Newton as hard-nosed Detective Schrank.  Brandon Mayes was convincing as Doc, a role usually portrayed by an older man.   

Playing the Jets were Taylor Hendricks, Malik Bilbrew, Gannon Thomas, Deena Davis, Jeremy Ferri, Jack Niemczyk, Alex Williams, Luke Gilboy, Everett Watson, Ned Franklin, Ethan Venzon and Evan Gray. The Jet girls were Lana Davidenko, Olivia Phillips, Isabelle Derienzo, Vivienne Gianneschi, and Isabella Williams.

The Sharks were Billy Lister, Kris Stam, Peter Chrusch, Johnny Flannagan, Kyle Thomposn, Dylan Lewis, Hannah Kurtz, Arlynes Marrero, and Mackenna Jacobs. The Shark girls were Cassidy Goldman, Jay Sevilla, Mickenzie Lee, Anisi Powell, Cecilia Despres, Nina-Simone Diaz, Anna Beyer, and Sirena Mia De La Rosa. Joshua Lee appeared as Officer Krupke, Qwyn Cephus appeared as Glad Hand.

The ensemble members who sang and danced included Emma Despres, Haley Dutton, Reanna Estioko, Liberty Frederickson, Abby Gibson, Hope Hackney, Lauren Hancock, Talia Kolenc, Gracie Marsh, Erin Messersmith, Abigail Morrell, Bailey Myers, Haley Reeves, Rebecca Shaw, Natalie Skala, Ryleigh Taylor and Mia Vazquez.

Additional production team members included Dr. Milton Russos (Executive Producer); Brandon Mayes (Production Assistant); Phillip Allison (Sound Design);  Desta Horner (Property Mistress); Samuel Fisher (Movement Coach/Fight Captain); Sam Parker, Press Thompson, Spencer Yeoman (Custom Fabrication); Ashley Weldon (Stage Manager); Tara Paige (Graphic Design, Marketing).

While it may have been six decades since this show first opened, the storyline and message reflect our current times. In addition to romantic love, the play looks at issues related to immigration, gun violence, police brutality, and racism, topics which are covered daily by our newspapers and broadcasters.

The Nathan H. Wilson Center is located at 11901 Beach Boulevard in Jacksonville, Florida. Visit fscj.edu/campuses/south-campus/nathan-h-wilson-center-for-the-arts for additional information and reservations.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.

october, 2021