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LIGHTNING REVIEW: Stars shine bright in 'West Side Story'

The Jets vs. the Sharks. Majority vs. minority. Love vs. hate.

The Flat Rock Playhouse’ latest production, West Side Story, imagines the consequences of drawing arbitrary lines in the sand and daring the enemy to step over. One of the most famous Broadway musicals of all time, this contemporary re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet lays bare the tension between two ethnic groups in 1950s New York City, and explores whether one young couple can love hard enough to overcome it all.

Debuting in 1957, West Side Story was first conceptualized by Jerome Robbins, who also directed and choreographed the original production of this award-winning piece of lyric theater. Robbins enlisted American playwright Arthur Laurents to write the book, and Leonard Bernstein to compose the music. Rounding out this iconic group, a young Stephen Sondheim was brought on to provide the lyrics. Sondheim made his Broadway debut with West Side Story, the popularity of which launched him into household name status.

While inspired by Romeo and Juliet, the American story centers on two warring street gangs, instead of two powerful families. Culture rather than last names tie the teens together. In another diversion from the source, almost all adults are missing. There are the prejudiced police: Lieutenant Schrank, embodied by a gruff Bill Chameides, and his lapdog Sergeant Krupke, played by Simon Stringer. A well-meaning social worker named Glad Hand (Bob Trisolini) who tries and fails to host a peaceful community dance. And the lone voice of reason, belonging to a shop owner named Doc. Played earnestly by veteran actor Scott Treadway, Doc pleads for peace using reason, rather than the empty platitudes or threats offered by his fellow men.

The kids, however, are having none of it. Expertly cast with many fresh-to-Flat Rock faces, a convincing rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks is established early in Act I. The Jets are a rough and tumble handful of working-class white boys (and one persistent little sister) who resent the Puerto Ricans moving into “their” neighborhood. The Sharks are made up of young immigrants jostling to belong while angrily defending their heritage. The two groups collide at Glad Hand’s dance in Scene 3, and the tension boils into a challenge to “rumble.”

But, not before the two star-crossed lovers spot each other across the crowded gym and fall in love with one kiss. Tony, our updated Romeo, is a kind young man who works in Doc’s Drugstore. Played by Brandon Keith Rogers, a native of North Carolina and newbie to The Rock, Tony’s hopeful rendition of “Something’s Coming” establishes his impressive vocal range and embodies his desire for life to change for the better. Tony has drifted from his pals in the Jets, but his best friend Riff, leader of their gang, pulls him back in by playing on his loyalty.

Riff is brought to life by the extremely talented J. Taylor Wright, a dynamic presence on stage who pulls focus even when in the background. Wright can not only sing and dance, he’s also responsible for the set of his song “Cool” and holds the extra duty as Dance Captain. Riff is hard to hate, even when acting hateful, due to his hilarious antics and charismatic dialogue. Wright somehow walks the fine line between intense feeling and apathetic attitude, leading viewers to lament the waste of his character’s raw magnetism on such lowly endeavors as fighting under overpasses.

Maria, on the other hand, lives up to and surpasses audience expectations (and perhaps her own) by insisting on peace between the gangs. And she almost succeeds. Marilyn Caserta, also new to the Playhouse, portrays Maria, the source of Tony’s love and inspiration for the famous song “Maria,” which Tony croons to himself shortly after their first meeting. She is the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (Eddie Maldonado), an intimidating and overly protective presence who wants Maria to marry his friend and fellow gang member, Chino (Daniel Powers).

Newly arrived from Puerto Rico, our Latina Juliet is eager to leave the dress shop she works in to explore American life and all the possibilities it promises. Dressed in white at the community dance, Maria is shown as a beacon of innocence, purity, and empathy. An image compounded by her childishly sweet and endearing rendition of the famous “I Feel Pretty.” Marilyn Caserta is brilliant as Maria, rising to the highs of new love as naturally as she falls into the depths of despair. Caserta crystallizes Maria’s beauty and unbounding youth with each perfect high note, forcing viewers to fall in love with her almost as deeply as poor Tony.

Overall, West Side Story and the four untiring artists who made it a reality have been honored by Flat Rock Playhouse’s rendition of one of the most influential musicals of all time. Veteran or newly minted, the vagabonds in this production sink heart and soul into their roles, gifting audiences with a truly heart-wrenching story of love and its enduring power over hatred, ignorance and ego.

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"West Side Story" plays Friday, July 1, through Saturday, July 30, at Flat Rock Playhouse’s Leiman Mainstage. Tickets range from $45 to $65. Student prices are available for ages 18 and under. For tickets, call the Flat Rock Playhouse Box Office at 828.693.0731 or visit