Staging strong performance


When a theater schedules a two-month run of a classic like Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, the production has to be of the highest musical caliber because the audience knows this 1957 masterpiece well enough to have formed high expectations.

Beyond attaining musical excellence, Chesapeake Music Hall's current production works well on other important levels.

Choreographer Sherry Kay Anderson has created her most exciting choreography to date with the best cast in memory. The performers execute it with verve and daring in spectacular lifts, bold athleticism and steamy sensuality. Anderson has strong support in the fight choreography from Jamie Hanna and Jeffrey Glenn Hitaffer, who raise the testosterone level several notches and add an element of danger.

Co-directors Anderson and Katy McAllister-Danckaert widen stage space by setting scenes far stage left and by moving action into the audience with Sharks and Jets passing between tables. They heighten dramatic impact by placing gang members in each main aisle to build tension before their rumble. These devices heighten drama while drawing the audience into the action.

There are also a number of excellent performances in leading and supporting roles.

This is a cast of great dancers, with Jacob Thornhill's Riff at the top of the pack, moving with wiry energy and feline grace. Matching Thornhill with ease and dynamism is Katy Schronce as Velma, creating a spectacular dance pairing.

Hitaffer, as Bernardo, brings his great moves to a memorable mambo with Tiffany Shannon's Anita for another notable dance partnership. Hitaffer also brings raw power and excitement to the male dance sequences.

Also bringing energy and intensity to the dance numbers are Ronnie Schronce as Chino, Dean Davis as Action and Tanya Swire as Consuela. Adding more flair is fine singer Kristen Zwobot as Rosalia, who will be remembered for her recent stint as the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

The fact that most cast members are above high-school age proves an advantage in finely nuanced performances -- far beyond most teenagers' reach.

Schronce brings a multidimensional credibility to the role of Chino, investing his character with genuine feeling and an underlying decency.

Recently seen in Gypsy in Summer Garden's opener and now a convincing Anita, Shannon rates kudos for her versatility, and she sings as well as she dances.

Thornhill is not only an extraordinary dancer but is also an excellent actor, who creates a likable, multidimensional Riff. Hitaffer brings seething intensity to a panoply of constricted emotions in his sensitive portrayal of Bernardo.

Jerry Vess -- standing in for Tim King -- gives a fine performance as Doc. Davis offers a highly charged portrayal of Action. In dual roles, David Bosley-Reynolds adds needed comedy as teacher Gladhand and street realism as Detective Schrank. Robert Biederman makes a strong debut as Officer Krupke.

Jason Vellon creates a finely nuanced, highly appealing Tony. To bring a new dimension to the signature song "Maria" requires both singing and acting skills -- which Vellon demonstrates. Not only is he a first-rate singing actor, but he also moves well, holding his own with the extraordinarily gifted dance ensemble.

In her debut role as Maria, 18-year-old Iliana Inocencio proves an excellent actress who is generally convincing. She displays a pleasing singing voice, albeit one of somewhat limited range.

"West Side Story" continues at Chesapeake Music Hall through Sept. 18 on weekends and Wednesdays. For information and reservations, call 410-626-7515 or 800-406-0306.

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