Husson’s new theater design elevates ‘West Side’ rendition

Posted Oct. 19, 2009, at 8:47 p.m.

West Side Story,” the premiere production at Gracie Theatre on the Husson University campus last weekend, did exactly what it was designed to do — it showcased the $6.5 million state-of-the-art facility.

The show, directed by Ken Stack, proved that a design which does not skimp on sound quality, lighting equipment or fly space, can make a company of community theater players look and sound almost like professionals.

“West Side Story,” which opened on Broadway in 1957, is a musical version of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and pits one street gang against another in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. That oversimplifies the complex score by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins’ revolutionary choreography. It is an incredibly difficult show for the actors because it requires them to act, sing and combine elements of ballet with modern dance.

It is the dancing that trips up most high school and community theater productions. Stack and choreographer Ann Ross used an extended rehearsal period that paid off big time. Ross got nearly every actor moving gracefully onstage. Although the steps aren’t replicas of Robbins’, the cast members danced in character and appeared comfortable doing it — a major accomplishment in any musical.

Stack made some unusual casting decisions that weakened the overall impact of the production. The Jets and the Sharks looked more like the class nerds than juvenile delinquents and they almost never seemed threatening enough to kill each other. It also was difficult to tell one gang member from another because nearly all were fair skinned. Trips to tanning booths or body makeup would have helped theatergoers tell them apart.

Jason Wilkes and Mary Ellms as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria were not physically suited for the parts and were costumed badly. In his powder blue sweater and beige slacks, Wilkes looked like he had just stepped out of an episode of “My Three Sons.” Ellms’ dresses did nothing to flatter or slenderize her figure.

Yet, if audience members closed their eyes while the couple sang “One Hand, One Heart” or “Tonight,” their voices were a perfect fit. Ellms’ soprano embraced and danced with Bernstein’s score in “I Feel Pretty” and Wilkes’ made everyone in the theater believe Tony’s prediction in “Something’s Coming.” Unfortunately, when they weren’t singing and the audience opened its eyes, there was not a spark of passion between the two.

The supporting players were far better in creating believable characters. Brianne Beck embodied Anita, the girlfriend of Maria’s brother Bernardo. Beck’s forceful and passionate performance captured not just Bernstein’s vision of young love thwarted but Shakespeare’s as well.

Trevor Senter as Bernardo and Stephen Estey as Riff never quite matched Beck but both gave excellent performances. Senter was one of the few actors who actually exuded some menace. Estey, far too old for the part, touchingly captured the gang leader’s refusal to grow up and his intense loyalty as well.

Despite the problems with Tony and Maria’s outfits, costume designer Audrey Swanton dressed the rest of the cast, particularly the Sharks and their girls, in clothes that fit the period. The skirts worn for the big dance scene in Act 1 were delightfully colorful and seemed to swirl to the music as the dancers twirled.

The set, designed by Brave Williams and the lighting design by Jeff Ferrell, were stunning. Williams built a scaffold on wheels then covered it. The outside looked like storefronts, but it opened up to become the inside of the bridal shop where Maria works and the soda shop where the Jets hang out. The Gracie’s fly space allowed Williams to drop lantern-style lights for the dance scene and a bridge for the rumble scene under the highway. Both enhanced those scenes tremendously.

Husson’s “West Side Story” was the first time in many years the Bangor Symphony Orchestra has played for a musical theater production. Under the direction of concertmaster Trond Saeverud, the 23 musicians proved that the BSO has successfully completed the transition from community to professional orchestra. Nearly every drop of passion in the show came not from the stage but from the pit.

The real star of the show, however, was the Gracie itself. Husson has given its students and Greater Bangor a tremendous gift in this intimate, acoustically perfect and technologically modern theater. While its primary purpose is to serve as a laboratory for Husson and students at the New England School of Communications, those who experienced “West Side Story,” warts and all, already are clamoring for more.

Husson President William Beardsley, who will step down at the end of the year, has said he wanted the theater to be a “bridge” from Husson to the community. Lovers of the performing arts can’t wait to walk over it again.

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