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On Theater: A heart-throbbing ‘West Side’ revival

West Side Story at The GEM Theater
Erika Baldwin (Maria) and Brandon Taylor Jones (Tony) in The GEM Theater’s production of “West Side Story,” which plays in Garden Grove through August 11.<br>
(Ron Lyon)

It’s been 62 years since “West Side Story” first jolted Broadway audiences and introduced a rookie lyricist named Stephen Sondheim. The tensions between races have hardly eased since then, which gives the show a contemporary feel when it’s revived today.

That show — which inspired an even more-impressive movie (10 Oscars, including best picture) — lives again in a powerful staging at Garden Grove’s The GEM Theater that excels in all three necessary elements of drama, musicality and ensemble excellence.

Under the dynamic direction of Damien Lorton and the silken-smooth choreography of Heather Holt-Smith, Alan Collins and Shauna Bradford, this is a “West Side Story” for today’s audiences, a show that has aged exceedingly well, as has the now-classic Leonard Bernstein score punctuated by Jerome Robbins’ feverish dance numbers.

“West Side Story” at The GEM Theater
Heather Holt-Smith, Alan Collins and Shauna Bradford are the choreographers of The GEM Theater’s “West Side Story” revival, directed by Damien Lorton.
(Ron Lyon)
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It’s a lot of theater to be packed onto one fairly small stage — and it frequently spills into the aisles — but its intimacy is a solid achievement. Vocal quality is prodigious, especially from the two leading characters Tony (Brandon Taylor Jones) and Maria (Erica Baldwin).

The slightly built Jones hardly resembles a gang leader, but his voice is magnificent, soaring on high notes that seem to go on forever. Baldwin should turn up the volume of her speaking voice but her singing also is superb, and she hits a dramatic peak in her final scene.

Nicole Cassesso, the show’s producer, tears into the role of Anita with a vengeance, cresting on her “America” number and breathing fire into “A Boy Like That” in her duet with Maria.

As the gang leaders, Race Chambers is a taut, gritty Riff and Danny Diaz simply smolders as the proud Puerto Rican Bernardo. Their “war council” boils over with vitriol and their final faceoff is memorable.

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“West Side Story” at The GEM Theater
Riff (Race Chambers) and the Jets in the “West Side Story” revival at The GEM Theater in Garden Grove.
(Ron Lyon)

Supporting roles are well filled with Nick Seigel’s pugnacious Action and Kerri Pelekoudas’ brash tomboy Anybodys meriting singular adulation. Seigel’s role also encompasses the mannerisms of the steely Ice, a character added for the movie.

Actors in the role of adults impress as well, particularly Richard Ullrich as the anxiety-ridden Doc and Jon Michell as the gruff police lieutenant. John Gillies is the comically spoofed Officer Krupke and Simon Hedrick lends a “Glad Hand” to the dance in the gym.

This latter sequence, in which the gangs square off for a visceral mambo match, is masterfully choreographed by Bradford, as is the “America” segment, though it might have been strengthened had the guys participated in the number as they did in the movie.

Playgoers more familiar with the screen version may wonder why the tension-packed “Cool” comes before the rumble and the richly comical “Gee, Officer Krupke” arrives afterward. Their reversal on film by director Robert Wise was one of several inspired choices.

It’s a pleasure to revisit “West Side Story” after its long absence from local stages, especially when it’s so gloriously realized as the current production at the GEM Theater.

IF YOU GO

What: “West Side Story”

Where: The GEM Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove

When: Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sunday at 2 and 8 p.m. through Aug. 11

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Cost: Starts at $26

Call: (714) 741-9550 or www.onemoreproductions.com


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