By Coulson Bingham
West Side Story, the classic adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, comes to life at Payson High School filled with all the love, drama, and fighting you could hope for out of this Grammy award winning musical. With music from Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim, and script by Arthur Laurents, this show is brought to life with dozens of actors and actresses all in their teen years dazzling the stage with their talents and love for theatre. Directed by Dane Allred with musical direction by Marilyn Morgan, this show tugs at your emotions, gets your heart racing and showcases hours and hours of work from many different hands.
Allred has directed more than 100 shows at Payson for 25 years. He is very familiar with the space he is using and did a wonderful job at ensuring that it was adequately used. From having actors right in front of you with the extended landing from the lip of the stage out into the audience to having people racing up and down the aisles. The idea of the chase between the gangs and their struggle for power was obvious from the very beginning of the show and added a level of exhilaration.
Lighting was minimal but for the most part it did its job to keep the actors in view and provide a feel for the emotion of the scene. There were a few dark spots but with the limited lights available they did a very good job ensuring that every scene was placed where it could be enjoyed. There were a few times when the lights were brought up accidentally during a scene change and it was very distracting. I was surprised at the complexity and intricacy of the immobile set. It was well-designed and provided the ability for actors to enter from the front of the proscenium and from the first wing. The mobile sets however looked a little rushed and untidy but did the job they needed to do.
As this musical was based in the 1950’s, the attire was very much like that of Grease. Very simple. However, a few of the costumes were way too modern to fit the appearance of the show. As with most high school productions, the microphones did not work the greatest. There were times when even straining to hear the actors they could not be heard from the sixth row.
Tony was played by junior Jalon Watts. Watts has been singing for years and has even the honor to be accompanied by David Foster while performing solo in Washington DC. This guy knows how to give chills to a crowd with his voice. However, this young actor is still a newbie to the acting world as this is his second show. He has a long way to go but is definitely growing and going to go far.
Doing a show such as West Side Story in a high school setting has got to be very hard. I am very impressed with the decision by the musical director and the director to attempt this particular piece. One of the biggest problems when faced with this musical in a high school is the accents. I was extremely impressed with the accents of the actors and their ability to stay in character even when singing. Especially, having seen West Side Story performed by high schools multiple times before, and not being very thrilled with the outcome, I was pleased. Very few of the students were actually ethnic and so for the most part it was out of their norm.
The second problem usually faced is finding enough males to make two decent sizes gangs to face off and carry the show vocally and visually. From the moment they took the stage, the male ensemble was one of the strongest I have ever seen at a high school. They vocally got the music out there and when they filled the stage they actually FILLED the stage. There were moments when these teenagers were able to actually bring the magic of theatre forward and propel the show with their performance and actually make me laugh out loud and bring a tear to my eye.
That brings me to another point. The fight choreography for the men was ridiculously cool. From the audience, I was really able to enjoy watching those encounters and get into the action. It took the show way up in energy and performance quality. In talking to cast members afterward, I was informed that all the fights were self-choreographed, which is great for high school students to do and it’s even better that it was good. The dance choreography and movement was interesting but brought the message across. It was interesting to see because most of the cast obviously were not dancers but they were mostly able to do what they were instructed and make it look good.
This was a very good showcase of Payson’s ability and it proved that they really do have talent and can do a show and do it well.
This high-energy show is playing through Monday November 17 at 7:30 at Payson High School.