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‘West Side Story’ is great summer entertainment

The musical “West Side Story” is challenging stuff for community theater.
The Davidson Community Players have risen to that challenge in a big way.
The play opened Thursday at the Duke Family Performance Hall on the campus of Davidson College ó and was the first opening night sellout since 2002.
Melissa Ohlman-Roberge has assembled a fine cast of 43, including students from 11 area schools.
“West Side Story” is a spin on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with the Montagues and Capulets replaced by New York gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.
The gangs are ethnically diverse ó an intentional choice on the director’s part. They are dressed similarly, indentifiable by the intensity of the colors they wear.
This production features some magnificent performances.
Grace Kidd is perfect as Maria, a recent Puerto Rican immigrant ó and sister of Shark leader Bernardo ó who falls in love with Tony (Steven James) a Jet who’s trying to leave gang life behind.
Kidd not only has a fantastic voice but manages to convey naked emotional intensity without a trace of artifice. She goes from being effervescent and charming ó or rather, “fizzy and funny and fine” ó in numbers like “I Feel Pretty” to portraying palpable anguish as the tragedy unfolds.
The role of Puerto Rican spitfire Anita is key to the play, and it’s hard to imagine a better choice than Abigail Pagan, who has the voice, spirit and appearance to make this part come alive.
Anita’s boyfriend is Bernardo, played by Salvador Garcia, who has the requisite swagger and attitude to pull off this role. Of all the gang members ó who tend to be pretty young and less than menacing ó Garcia is the most convincing. Steven Buchanan as Riff is also good.
Those associated with Davidson College will note that Officer Krupke is Fountain Walker ó who in real life is chief of campus police.
The Leonard Bernstein-Steven Sondheim score is loaded with signature songs that never get stale, from the sophisticated and disturbing (“A Boy Like That”) to the simply beautiful (“One Hand, One Heart”).
The big numbers do not disappoint ó “Tonight” at the end of the first act had me wanting to leap to my feet.
Clearly, a great deal of effort went into the show’s choreography ó credit Ron Chisholm and Felicia Davis.
The Jet Boys, led by Action (Christian Bufford), are hilarious in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” as they sing about being victims of “a social disease.”
The Shark Girls are equally compelling in “America.” Tierney Lanham as Rosalia shines in this number, as does Pagan.
The Bernstein music played by a real orchestra (behind the stage) is a treat. On opening night, the orchestra was occasionally a bit ahead of or behind the singers (or vice versa), but coordination improved as the show went on.
The Duke Family Performance Hall, located in the Davidson College student center, is a superb theatre venue, with nary a bad seat in the house.
As the first Davidson Community Players play I’ve seen, “West Side Story” sets the bar pretty high.
If there is a better way to spend a summer evening, I want to know what it is.
The play continues through June 27. Remaining performances are Thursday, June 25, Friday, June 26 and Saturday, June 27.
Curtain time is 8 p.m. for evening performances and 2 p.m. for the Sunday matinee. The performance is general seating, with season ticket holders selecting their seats before the doors open for general seating. Doors to the theatre open 30 minutes prior to curtain.
Ticket prices are $15-$22. For reservations, call 704-892-7918 or go online to www.carolinatix.org.
For more information, go to www.davidsoncommunityplayers.org.

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