JPAS’s ‘West Side Story’ is sung, choreographed very well

By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)

There is a point in the second act of the current production of Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s “West Side Story” where the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim musical merges into the ethereal Jerome Robbins ballet.

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Tiffany Renée Bear as Maria and John Michael Haas as Tony in the JPAS production of “West Side Story” finishing in Metairie this weekend. (Photo by John Barrois)

The central story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria, which we have seen sung and danced out in Act One against the backdrop of 1950s New York is now performed by dancers representing the two battling gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. Choreographer and director Kenneth Beck executes some of his most impressive work to date with this dance fantasy, a sequence which is similar to those found in well-known Rodgers and Hammerstein vehicles “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” by Agnes DeMille.

It would make sense that a director known predominantly for his work as a choreographer would emphasize that with which he is most familiar, but in this season opening production, Beck is blessed by an embarrassment of riches. While young and untested, his cast of singers and actors has proved to be at the top of their game.

And what a game it has been since its debut in New York nearly 60 years ago. It is the stuff of legend that a young, talented, but inexperienced Sondheim was paired in his first Broadway endeavor with the egomaniacal Bernstein and the demanding director-choreographer Robbins. The musical has been a star vehicle since its premiere, but it has its challenges both vocally and in terms of its execution. It requires the deepest of concentration.

As Tony, John Michael Haas’s incredible tenor voice soars above the sumptuous playing of the JPAS Symphony Orchestra led by maestro, artistic and executive director Dennis Assaf. North Carolina soprano Tiffany Renée Bear is another fabulous find, a singer with a magnificent voice in the challenging role of Maria. The pair’s balcony scene (“Tonight”) and “One Hand, One Heart” that follows are beautifully sung and acted with precision.

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Micah Richerand Desonier, center, as Anita, has a blast in “America.” (Photo by John Barrois)

Veteran JPAS performer Micah Richerand Desonier (“Sound of Music” and “Fiddler on the Roof”), as Anita, reminds audience members that she is one of the best triple threats in New Orleans. A singer of great depth, she has an exceptional performance in the Second Act duet with Bear in “A Boy Like That/I Have Love,” but truly excels in “America,” where she shows off her dancing prowess too.

Brice Slocumb and Kirk Gagnon as gang leaders Riff and Bernardo, respectively, are also noteworthy for their work in Act One. Indeed, all of the dancing gang members in the opening “Prologue,” “Jet Song,” “Dance at the Gym” and “The Rumble” that closes Act One are wonderful to see. The Jets who take part in “Gee (Officer Krupke)” are at their comedic and dancing best in a scene that truly delights the audience.

Beck and Assaf should know full well that their efforts have not gone unrewarded. There is little doubt the reason why there are so many good things in this production at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center is preparation. Beck and Assaf have put in hundreds of hours in practice with their singers, dancers and actors and it shows. Fight choreographers Ian Blanco and Liz Wiltcher also execute their designs very well. Music director Donna Clavijo, lighting designer Nancy Macko and Emily Billington’s scenic designs were all top drawer.

With “West Side Story,” JPAS enters its second season at the state-of-the-art Jefferson Performing Arts Center. With the magnificent voice work and dancing going on there for the final times this weekend, it is a highly recommended work to see and may be the most delightful production “JPAS” has staged since its award-winning “The Light in the Piazza” three years ago.

“West Side Story” concludes its run this weekend. For tickets call 504-885-2000 or click here.

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