The genius of lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein comes across beautifully in the West End Dinner Theatre’s performance of West Side Story. And at this theater, you get more than just a show.
The theater, located in Alexandria, Va., is a unique business – the actors, technicians and production staff are also the waiters. The host of the evening noted the actors make most of their money waiting tables, and that is why they chose the dual role. The duality gives the theater a feeling of community and gives the audience a connection to the performers.
At 6 p.m. the theater serves dinner, consisting of a salad, a main course of meat, potatoes and vegetables and a dessert. The theater also offers a vegetarian option. The portions are large enough to satisfy your hunger, and the quality of the food is close to homemade. At intermission you can order a slice of homemade cake, in addition to the dessert included with the meal, for an additional charge. If you think you’ll be hungry again, then order the second cake – it was a welcome addition during the intermission.
Sondheim and Bernstein, along with librettist Arthur Laurents, used the well-known love story of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a starting point. They replaced Romeo and Juliet with a Puerto Rican girl named Maria and an American boy named Tony, placed them in Manhattan in the 1950s and voila, West Side Story.
Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, the gangs are the Jets, Tony’s gang, and the Sharks, the gang Maria’s brother Bernardo leads. The conflict is the neighborhood territory – both groups intend to uphold their pride and claim the area as their own. But as with Romeo and Juliet, the inevitable becomes reality. Through the truth of the music, the flamboyant choreography and the connection the audience makes to the show, West Side Story proves to be a meaningful story for nearly everyone.
The show starts with a burst of energy in the opening choreographic sequence and song. The stage is transformed into the streets and alleys of Manhattan – fences, ladders and balconies. You can’t forget the balcony – it’s an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. The audience first meets the Jets, and the conflict is introduced almost immediately.
With the introduction of Joey Wallen as Tony in the second scene, it is apparent why he was cast as the lead. He has a beautiful voice that he boasts in many solos and duets. He also has an incredible vocal range but has a problem controlling his volume.
Wallen’s voice is matched in talent by Janine Gulisano, who portrays Maria. Gulisano also has an impressive range, but she lets her higher notes get a bit shrill. Wallen and Gulisano perform many duets throughout the show, allowing them to combine their talents in singing and acting.
The “Tonight Quintet” at the end of the first act is an amazing overlapping of voices and lyrics. The Jets are preparing for a rumble with the Sharks, and Tony and Maria are anticipating their next meeting. Anita, Maria’s friend, is getting ready for a romantic night with her boyfriend Bernardo. Actors are placed all over the stage on ladders and on balconies. The first act ends leaving the audience wanting more.
The choreography of the first act is a high energy mix of salsa and jazz, and the group numbers emanate that energy. The choreography in theory is compatible with the music, but the dancing in the first act was a little sloppy. By the second act, the actors had become more comfortable, and the dancing was right on. The choreography and the lighting for the number “Cool,” in which the Jets try to stay “cool” after the rumble, is beautiful. The dancing is much more lyrical in the second act than in the first.
The one part of the show that does not completely satisfy audience members is the stage combat. While it gets better as the show progresses, the first fight scenes appear too soft and too choreographed. The story line has two gangs in New York fighting, and the actors are throwing blank punches in the air, robbing the show of important credibility.
Throughout the show, the lighting is beautiful – from shots of red across the back of the stage to an eerie heavenly white after the death of the leaders of the Jets and the Sharks. The lighting also helped scene changes take place smoothly.
Overall, the show is a success. While there are a few lapses in choreography and vocals, the set, lighting and group numbers easily compensate for the minor problems. The quality of the theater, the food and the entertainment is absolutely worth the travel and the money.
West Side Story continues at the West End Dinner Theatre through Dec. 31. The theater is located at 4615 Duke St. in Alexandria. To get there by Metro, go to the Van Dorn Street stop, and then take a cab to the theater.
This article appeared in the September 23, 1999 issue of the Hatchet.