A tasty 'West Side Story'

The Baltimore Sun

Since Chesapeake Music Hall closed its doors near the end of 2004, Anne Arundel County has been without dinner theater. The Music Hall's demise was a loss for the subscribers who enjoyed its bargain meal-show package and for the actors who honed their skills there.

But anyone in search of such an entertainment package can find top-notch versions at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Baltimore in the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center at Travel Plaza, which opened in March 2006, and at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, which has garnered 55 Helen Hayes Award nominations during its 29-year existence.

The half-hour trip to Toby's Baltimore brought dividends in providing a first-rate performance of West Side Story that recently opened for a two-month run. The sumptuous all-you-can-eat buffet, complete with a make-your-own sundae bar, provides an added incentive.

West Side Story transports Romeo and Juliet to 1950s Manhattan, where they are caught between rival street gangs: the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Anglo Jets. As in Shakespeare's classic, the young lovers rise above the hate and prejudice that surrounds them.

The edgy, ethnic 1957 show is as current as today's headlines of xenophobic anti-Hispanic immigrant prejudices and warring street gangs.

Also current is Leonard Bernstein's incomparable 51-year-old score with perfectly wedded lyrics penned by a then 27-year-old Stephen Sondheim in classics such as "Tonight," "Somewhere," "America" and "Maria." Originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the street gangs move the action with macho toughness and youthful power.

Toby's production is directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick, with Cedric Lyles as vocal director.

The sparse set, dominated by a chain-link fence with brick buildings suggested, was designed by David Hopkins. As lighting designer, he created projections of fire escapes in orange and yellow combinations darkening to deeper red tones to bring the ghetto to vivid life.

The success of any West Side Story depends on the casting of Tony and Maria.

Matthew Schleigh is an ardent Tony who makes us believe at the outset in "Something's Coming" that he is about to discover an enchanted world in his bleak neighborhood. Schleigh invests Tony with nobility when the former Jets leader rejects gang warfare.

Although Schleigh's pleasant singing voice was not up to the challenge of the near-operatic tenor aria "Maria" last Wednesday when I caught the show, he was fine with most other numbers.

Here the star is clearly Jessica Ball as Maria, whose brother is a member of the Puerto Rican Sharks and whose family has chosen Chino as her future husband.

Ball not only looks exactly right for the part, but she possesses the best singing voice in the cast, and she conveys Maria's exuberance, devotion, passion and final disillusion. Early in the show when Ball joins Schleigh's Tony in singing "Tonight," the evening becomes magical. She later adds poignant depth with "One Hand, One Heart" and "Somewhere" ("There's a place for us.") Ball adds heartbreaking high drama to the final tragic scene.

Annapolis resident Tina Marie DeSimone plays the worldlier Anita, who works in a bridal shop with Maria and loves Maria's brother, Bernardo - a relationship equally doomed.

DeSimone's spirited dancing sparks the show-stopping "America" number and her singing "A Boy Like That" to convince Maria of Tony's unsuitability adds depth, as does her drugstore confrontation with the Jets, where she is nearly raped.

Among noteworthy supporting players are Darren McDonnell as Bernardo and Rachel Schur as Anybodys, along with all of the other Sharks and Jets who bring such energy and power to the choreography that propels this show.

Robert Beidermann lends warmth and adult wisdom to his dual roles of Doc and Officer Krupke, and dancer Rebecca Fale Chiu dominates every number she graces.

Brooklyn Park resident David Bosley-Reynolds plays the dual roles of tough Lieutenant Schrank and nerdy Glad Hand convincingly and with apparent ease, when such disparate roles might be a stretch for some actors. A local favorite from his Chesapeake Music Hall days, Bosley-Reynolds has played many leading roles at Toby's and next will play Max Bialystock in the Toby's Columbia production of The Producers in late August.

West Side Story continues nightly through Aug. 24 at Toby's Baltimore, 5625 O'Donnell St. Adult ticket prices, which include dinner, range from $48 to $54; group rates range from $41 to $48 per person. Information: www.tobysdinnertheatre.com or 410-649-1660.

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