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Thousand Oaks’ local favorite Conejo Players has been wowing audiences weekly since 20 July with their summer production of West Side Story. And if you haven’t had a chance to get to Conejo Players to see this production, you’ll be wanting to reserve a spot in your calendar for closing weekend (16-19 August)! Considering that this past Sunday’s 2pm matinee was sold out you’ll want to get a hold of those tickets ASAP.
As always, Conejo Players pulls some of the best and brightest talent from the Conejo Valley and beyond. Director Devery Holmes (President of the Board of Directors) was so impressed with the talent she saw that the show’s leads and several featured roles have been double cast and at Sunday’s matinee, Tony and Maria were played by the capable and winsome Cameron Liljekvist and Jennifer Scott.
Their charm was in their youthful exuberance experiencing first love. Major props to the couple for bringing passion and charm to “One Hand, One Heart” without making it nauseating. And the pain they both felt during the second act was palpable and gut wrenching. Similarly double casted, Cheyenne Green is feisty and sexy as Anita. Her almost rape scene (not quite as intense as the latest US National Tour) is tragic and heart wrenching as is her fabulous second act duet. Chino (Joel Tinjaca) was not only the best dressed cast member at the gym dance but happened to exhibit some fabulous acting chops during the second act in his scenes with Scott. Dale Alpert, who was last seen in Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s Little Women: The Musical, does a fabulous job as Doc providing the voice of reason of the show. I certainly was itching to applaud him on a couple occasions. Supporting standout was Allison Martinez (lastly in Camarillo Skyway Playhouse’s Little Women: The Musical) as a hilarious and adorable Rosalia/Shark Girl and Michael Kronenberg as Baby John who tugged at the heart strings with his second act comments about the late rumble. The two surprise favorite leads of the day were Jeff Lawless and Tyler Lopez as Riff and Bernardo respectively.
All in all though the casting was superb and not a weak link amongst them all. I was specifically interested in Holmes’ decision to cast many of the Puerto Ricans Color blindly without the usual stereotype looks aside from her leading ladies for both casts and Lopez as Bernardo. Many of the Shark girls I would wager to be Caucasian whereas typically most jet girls are Caucasian and I notice one to be of color. This actually worked out well in connection with the directors notes saying,
“during these times when street violence and race wars are still very real, West side story reminds us of the importance of embracing our differences; of forgiveness; and of the power of love.”
Lieut. Shrank (Ray Mastrovito), the show’s largest and most obvious racist, makes sure none of the boys are immune from being picked on for their background because as he points out most of the Jets are immigrants themselves be it from European countries. The line between the current scapegoat and last year’s scapegoat is very thin as I believe our director was trying to point out with her casting decisions. Of course this could all just be my reading of the situation but it seemed to work well for the Conejo Players’ production of Leonard Bernstein’s famed musical.
Strong props go to costume designer Manuel Silva for the choice and decision to use color to differentiate between gangs and races with the exception of Maria. Also, the ballet costumes during act two were gorgeous and perfectly complemented and reflected the tone of the show. Similarly I found that wig designer Leo Zeller did a great job with the ladies’ wigs making them appear very realistic and using them to help differentiate between the jet girls and the shark girls. In fact many times I was not even sure which lady was wearing a wig and who was not. And despite the very simple set design by John Eslick I found it came off well made and by not distracting from the story the sets helped move the plot along. And what a delight it was to have a live orchestra, featuring the likes of Margaret Joyce on Reeds, albeit thin and sometimes capable of drowning out the singers so lines were missed.
But really Miriam Durrie-Kirsch‘s choreography (that was so well loved in Panic! Production’s She Loves Me), with assistance by her daughter Dani Kirsch, was the star of the show. The program says that the choreography was inspired by the original version of Jérôme Robbins and there is no questioning that in the brilliant prologue and dance at the gym sequences. But after a short while you almost forget that anyone came before this brilliance choreographer because she makes every sequence her own. My favorite has definitely got to be her gorgeous ballet sequence during “Somewhere” that had me all choked up. But choosing a favorite has to be as difficult as the oft-time quoted “I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the heavens” (Ever After). And did I even mention how quickly the time flew with impeccable scene changes and fast moving scenes that never left me craving more nor itching to check my watch.
West Side Story plays through Aug. 19 at the Conejo Players Theatre. Please do yourself the favor of seeing this breath taking, heart wrenching and sensational production. Even if you do not see the three leads I did, you’re guaranteed a fabulous time thanks to their strong ensemble and the very talented Dale Alpert, Jeff Lawless, Tyler Lopez and Allison Martinez. This is one of the best community performances I’ve seen in a long time nearly rivaling five star theatricals recent production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. A++.
Disclaimer: My ticket was comped for review purposes but all opinions are my own.