‘West Side Story’ at Riverside Center Dinner Theater

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Riverside Center Dinner Theater presents the musical classic West Side Story, based on a Conception of Jerome Robbins, with Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Full of spirited performances and thrilling choreography, Riverside delivers a powerful and very moving production. West Side Story is passionately directed by Jay D. Brock, with Musical Direction by Jason Michael.

Anita (Olivia Reed) assists Maria (Quinn Vogt-Welch) in the Bridal Shop. Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.
Anita (Olivia Reed) assists Maria (Quinn Vogt-Welch) in the Bridal Shop. Photo by Suzanne Carr-Rossi.

Scenic Designer J.D. Madsen does a fantastic job with the set, with tall, imposing brick buildings framing a narrow street. Everything about this set is massive, down to the gaping drainpipe and rickety steel balconies, and multiple levels gift the actors and dancers with many different platforms to manipulate (it’s amazing what some people will backflip off of!). This is by no means a cheerful place–trash and spare tires litter the street, the dimly-lit windows are shut tight, and everything seems to have a off-putting brown overtone to it- but it is impressively built and meticulously detailed.

Lighting Designer Catherine Girardi rounds out the somber atmosphere by putting you into the hazy heat of summer, and it so realistic that you can practically feel the humidity on your skin. Costume Designer Gaye Law brings back the late 1950s with her dresses and hairstyles, but I believe the most important factor with costumes was the fact that the two rival gang colors (yellow and blue) found themselves represented on every character, whether being tied around a young man’s upper arm or being the dominant color of a young girl’s dance dress. These colors are worn with a fierce pride.

Unfortunately, the performance I attended had several sound issues. There were multiple mic feedback issues, and at times the music was so loud that you could not hear the singers. Unfortunately this was especially true in the crowd favorite “America.” I am confident that Technical Director Phil Carlucci has resolved these issues.

Two rival teenage gangs’ (the Jets and the Sharks) hatred comes to a boil one summer evening, and they decide to have a rumble that will finally end their longstanding turf war (shown in the energetic “The Jet Song”). However, when two distanced members of the rival groups fall in love with each other (Quinn Vogt-Welch as Maria and Matthew Hirsh as Tony), a chance for peace is recognized. But can a truce be realized before emotions surge and tragedy strikes?

Racial tension is a dominant force behind this hatred (the Sharks are Puerto Rican, the Jets are White), and the adults do little to ease the hostility, as they feel it themselves (in fact, Alan Hoffman as Officer Krupke seems to use more derogative language than the teenagers themselves). This is especially interesting, as it studies our social structure and lends the question– who is at fault, really? Level-headed Doc (played by John Hollinger) scolds the teenagers, telling them that they “make this world lousy,” to which they shoot back, “that’s how we found it, Doc.”What kind of world are we leaving for our children?

There are some real standout performances: Colton Montgomery steals scenes with his vigorous portrayal of Action, a Jets gang member. Leads Quinn Vogt-Welch and Matthew Hirsh both have stunningly beautiful voices, displayed in “Maria” and “I Feel Pretty.” Vogt-Welch’s Puerto-Rican accent needs some polishing though. Ryan Sellers has an intimidating air about him as Bernardo, leader of The Sharks and Maria’s brother, while David Vogel portrays the Jet’s leader Riff more as an immature teenager caught up in his enthusiasm and passion. Both are very convincing in their roles.

While the ensemble here is a talented one and give solid performances, what makes this show really great is the masterfully choreographed song-and-dance numbers. Originally choreographed by Broadway legend Jerome Robbins, Shawna Walker Hallinan uses a mixture of ballet, striking leaps, and standard 50’s dance moves to dazzle the audience. “The Dance at the Gym” shows incredible group choreography, and in the hilarious song “Gee, Officer Krupke” the actors bend themselves into their own props, which is a delight to see. “The Rumble” is thrilling and tense, and the beautifully performed “Ballet” is full of remorse and regret.

The cast of 'West Side Story.' Photo courtesy of Riverside Center Dinner Theater.
The cast of ‘West Side Story.’ Photo bu Suzanne Carr Rossi.

Filled with passionate performances and breathtaking dancing, Riverside Center Dinner Theater’s West Side Story is not to be missed!

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 20-minute intermission.

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West Side Story plays through August 3, 2014 at Riverside Center Dinner Theater – 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For reservations, call the box office at (540) 370-4300.