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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

West Side Story
Grand Canyon University
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon University
With one of the most moving and significant books and scores in musical theatre history West Side Story has a message that is both timely and timeless. It is a show that is the perfect combination of drama, music and dance created by four masters of the American theatre. Arthur Laurents' book perfectly aligns with Leonard Bernstein's music, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and the iconic choreography of Jerome Robbins to create what is truly one of the most beloved musicals. Grand Canyon University's production wisely uses Robbins' original, iconic choreography and a large cast to expertly display why this show's message remains truthful and especially relevant almost sixty years after it first premiered. Since almost every character in the show is a teenager or young adult, the youthful age of the GCU cast also adds realism and poignancy.

Set in 1950s New York City, the creators updated Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet by making Shakespeare's two feuding families into two rival gangs, one white, the Jets, and one Puerto Rican, the Sharks. As both gangs continually fight for their home turf, star crossed lovers Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, sister of the Shark's leader Bernardo, get caught in the middle.

Laurents' book is superb as it interweaves themes of loyalty, friendship, dedication to family, and staying true to one's heritage. Bernstein and Sondheim's score features some of the most instantly recognizable showtunes, from the ballads "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming" to the romantic "Maria" and "Tonight," the heavy dance numbers "Cool" and "America," and the comical numbers "I Feel Pretty" and "Officer Krupke." The songs add to the development of the characters, fleshing out their feelings and thoughts, while they also propel the story. Even the dream ballet "Somewhere" breaths beauty into the ugliness that has come before it and is placed at the perfect point in the show, just as the tensions have gotten high.

Even though not every member has the greatest singing voice, GCU's cast is quite good and the sheer size of the almost 40-member group adds a level of magnitude that you don't get from most productions. Preston MacDonald and Madison Cichon make a cute, realistic couple as Tony and Maria. They both have lovely voices that fit well in their many songs. Cichon evokes the innocence that Maria requires while MacDonald instills Tony with a genuine sense of the young boy who is yearning and learning to be a man. The two also stimulate plenty of sparks in their many romantic moments.

Tarnim Bybee is perfect as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend. She is feisty and firm, yet also elicits a strong sense of care for Maria and Tony. Bybee is engaging and natural, not just in her acting and singing but also in her dancing. Her delivery of "America" is superb, filled with a spirited and gutsy energy, and her duet with Cichon of "A Boy Like That / I Have a Love" is raw and heartbreaking.

As Riff, the leader of the Jets, Chesney Thompson projects leadership abilities and evokes so much pent up energy and anger that it's easy to see why he and the rest of his gang are always on edge. As Bernardo, Javaughn Iversen has a strong, steady demeanor, which, while still full of fear and pent up energy, creates a nice counterbalance to Thompson. The rest of the cast do well in echoing the energetic pace and fearful, angry tone of Thompson and Iversen.

Director Claude Pensis does very good work, ensuring that the actors deliver unique portrayals full of both emotion and humor. He adds some nice touches throughout, my favorite being the quick coda at the end, after all of the death and despair has unfolded. He has just the adult characters remain on stage, looking in despair and disbelief and completely guilty, showing them to be partly, if not entirely, to blame for what has happened before. This adds an entirely new and dynamic layer to the story. Pensis also has come up with a creative design for the show unlike any I've seen before. He has stripped the Ethington Theatre space bare to the back walls and added a large, moveable set piece with a raised billboard, several street signs, a large street lamp, and a basketball hoop. This clean look from William H. Symington projects a feeling of timelessness and, since it isn't specific to New York City, also a sense of Anytown, USA. While that decision works well, the use of that elevated billboard to represent both the balcony and interior of Maria's bedroom is a bit of a stretch, especially since those scenes play out with the large billboard still in view. It still works, but might be somewhat confusing to those who have never seen this show before, as it makes it seem that Maria lives on the streets, or at least on the walkway outside the billboard. Fortunately, there isn't any misstep in Nola Yergen's exquisite costumes or Pensis' exceptional lighting.

Susannah Keita has restaged Robbins' choreography expertly and almost all of the cast are able to deliver the abundant choreography with ease. Seeing these well-known moves danced by such a large cast is a joyful experience. Musical director Mark Fearey does very good work, not only with the large cast but with the fairly large orchestra. The only issue I had with the music was that at the performance I attended the microphone levels for the orchestra were off, with Feary's piano slightly higher than the rest of the musicians, which made it seems at points like it was a piano only accompaniment.

While GCU's production of West Side Story is very good, the bad news is that all performances sold out well in advance of opening night. Fortunately, there is a cancellation line that forms about 30 minutes before show time.

West Side Story performs at Grand Canyon University's Ethington Theatre through April 9th, 2017. The theatre is located at 3300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix and ticket and performance information can be found at or by calling 602-639-8880.

Director: Claude Pensis
Musical Director: Mark Fearey
Choreography restaged by Susannah Keita
Scenic Designer/Properties Designer: William H. Symington V
Lighting Designer: Claude Pensis
Costume Designer: Nola Yergen
Hair and Makeup Designers: Kay Gray
Sound Designer: Stacee Martinez

Tony: Preston MacDonald
Maria: Madison Cichon
Riff : Chesney Thompson
Bernardo: Javaughn Iversen
Anita: Tarnim Bybee
Action: Kaleb Burris
A-rab: Trustin Adams
Baby John: Levi Roberts
Snowboy: Bennett Wood
Big Deal: Alexander Dubois
Diesel: Gavin Harris
Anybodies: Christen McGrath
Chino: Ruben Renteria
Pepe: Caleb Raney
Anxious: Andrew Dell
Indio: Blake Keyes
Toro: Bowen Moreno
Juano: Benjamin Xiong
Luis: Jalani Lee
Moose: Estevaun Lauro
Officer Krupke: Logan Barrett
Detective Schrank: Clinton Slay
Glad Hand: Stacy Arleen
Doc: Cameron Cluff
Graziella: Abby Neighbors
Velma : Sarah Tedeschi
Minnie: Carah Robenalt
Clarice: Sienna Privat
Paula: Sarah Kunz
Lucille: Rachel Hegg
Wanda: Christine Ward
Consuela: Laynie Nelson
Rosalia: Bri Ha-Nguyen
Francisca: Grace Henderson
Estella: Alyssa Quiett
Teresita: Turiya Chavez
Margarita: Jennifer Marcantonio
Valentina: Brenna Keck
Clarita: Kaitlyn Johnson

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