McLean High School
Amidst graffiti-stained walls and chain-link fences, young boys fight a war that cannot end without death. Only love can heal the racial tensions and gang violence that afflict the West Side. With affecting performances from talented actors, James Madison High School transplants Shakespeare's best-loved tragedy into Manhattan with West Side Story, a tale of star-crossed love, unyielding loyalty, and devastating loss.
With a score by musical legends Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story opened to critical acclaim in 1957, spawning both a 1961 film classic and an upcoming film remake directed by Steven Spielberg. Renowned for its complex melodies and balletic choreography, the tragedy transforms the Montagues and Capulets into the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs of white and Puerto Rican boys, respectively. In the middle of the racial hatred, love blossoms between Tony, an ex-Jet, and Maria, whose brother leads the Sharks. As ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny, only the two star-crossed lovers can stop the violence before a feud becomes an all-out war.
At the center of the story, Zach Spafford's earnest passion as Tony perfectly complemented Stella Monner's sweet innocence as Maria. A beacon of hope amidst bitter darkness, both actors handled demanding moments of anguish with grace, simultaneously conveying the intense love that grew between them. Spafford's clear tenor soared when paired with Monner's soaring vocals, blending mellifluously in tender numbers like "Tonight."
Tension mounted in every scene featuring the rival gangs thanks to the intense performances of Ryaan Farhadi as Bernardo and Logan Neville as Riff. Farhadi was the epitome of pride, rage always bubbling below the surface, and his robust tone shone through even in large group numbers. In contrast, Neville's Riff was more carefree, laughing at the fate he has been handed and dancing freely (and excellently) in the face of danger. The palpable enmity between the two actors, echoed by their gangs, was only subverted by a moment of levity in "Gee, Officer Krupke." Showcasing the comic chops of the Jets, the satirical number was a relief from the dramatic tension, buoyed by the energetic and committed Ben Eggleston as Action.
Original choreography by Lucy Breedlove and Heather Colbert captured the essence of Jerome Robbins's athletic style, inserting his iconic moves into clean, impressive dance numbers. With flouncing skirts and blue jeans, the 1950s New York atmosphere was augmented by the costume design, which assigned a specific color to different characters until they were united, clad in white, in the dreamy "Somewhere."
The hardships of immigrant life, the disease of gang violence, the sacrifices made for love; West Side Story was unafraid to tackle complex issues. Madison's riveting production of the romantic tragedy reminds audiences that no rivalry is worth losing the ones you love.
St. Paul VI Catholic High School
Something's coming, something good…something like James Madison High School's production of West Side Story! This classic reimagining of Romeo and Juliet replaces the pageantry and splendor of Verona for the streets of New York City's Upper West Side. Separating the star-crossed lovers of Tony and Maria are the rival gangs of the Jets and the Sharks, and the present racial tension between them. This centuries old story was brought to life again with its book by Arthur Laurents, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and unforgettable music by Leonard Bernstein. James Madison High School took on the intimidating demands of West Side Story and created a performance that was visually stunning and emotionally impactful.
Bringing all the passion of Romeo and Juliet were Zach Spafford as Tony and Stella Monner as Maria. Their characters are the definition of love at first sight, and Spafford and Monner made Tony and Maria not into two characters, but two halves becoming one. The combination of their already strong vocals created yet another outlet for Spafford and Monner to express the fire their characters felt and to tug at the heartstrings of the audience, especially in ballads like "Tonight."
Leading the Jets was Logan Neville as Riff. With his trademark cool attitude, Neville commanded the attention of the audience with nothing more than a snap. Bringing more to the table than just charisma, Neville also demonstrated smooth vocals and impressive dance skills in numbers like "Cool." Ben Eggleston as Action also contributed to the strength of the Jets with an aggressive ferocity while on stage that helped to heighten the tension.
The Jets were a real band of brothers, and as a whole worked as a unit with an infectious energy which was made especially evident in their dance numbers, namely "Prologue." The members of the dance ensemble were able to convey incredible emotion without a single word, executed their choreography with precision, and had the eyes of the audience glued to them. With movement as stunning as that of the Jets, it was impossible to look away for a single moment.
Countering the Jets were the Sharks, led by Ryaan Farhadi as Bernardo. Farhadi's intimidating stature and cold demeanor as Bernardo really lent a hand to creating conflict in the show. Maria Christou as Anita used her character to bring heart to the Sharks, especially in the comic number "America," while at the same time demonstrating to Maria why things are the way they are in the Upper West Side.
While being vocally impressive, the real strength of West Side Story was the extensive dancing. The choreography, by Lucy Breedlove and Heather Colbert, was reflective of the original choreography of Jerome Robbins. There wasn't a weak link in the entire company as everyone collectively executed challenging choreography.
The tension between the two gangs wasn't only created by its actors, there were immense contributions from the technical staff. The student orchestra flawlessly executed Bernstein's challenging score. The costumes crew used color to create a division between the two gangs, which was helpful for differentiation during scuffles. For the rumble scene, the scenic designers decided to finally throw the two groups together with a chain link fence closing them in and creating an inescapable feeling to the violence of the scene.
To put on West Side Story is a tall order - just to do it is impressive. To do it well is astounding, and that's exactly what James Madison High School achieved. Madison Drama created a hauntingly beautiful performance that left audiences devastated and craving that special place for us, somewhere.