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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Civic Theatre’s “West Side Story” a moving production of classic show

Tony, right (Duncan Menzies), twists the arm of his friend Riff (Preston Loomer) in a scene from the Spokane Civic Theatre’s production of “West Side Story.” (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A story as classic as “West Side Story” carries with it certain expectations.

There’s love, drama and action, all intertwined with beloved songs like “Cool,” “America” and “I Feel Pretty.”

For the most part, Spokane Civic Theatre managed to meet those expectations, save for a few hiccups.

The Lenny Bart-directed “West Side Story,” inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” explores the rivalry between the Jets, a white gang, and the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, in mid-1950s New York City.

At the heart of the story is the forbidden love between associates of the two gangs and the aftermath of their romance.

Tony (Duncan Menzies) is a former member of the Jets and best friend of gang leader Riff (Preston Loomer). Maria (Maddie Burgess) is the sister of Bernardo (played by Arnoldo Heredia at this show), who leads the Sharks.

Menzies’ voice took a couple songs to really warm up, but by the time he got to “One Hand, One Heart,” a duet with Burgess, his voice moved effortlessly between strong and proud and sweet and tender, depending on the tone of the song.

Sixteen-year-old Burgess brought the perfect amount of bright-eyed curiosity to the character of Maria.

In the dance at the gym, for instance, Burgess stood off to the side, tentatively recreating the dance moves she saw the Jets and the Sharks execute.

It was a simple moment, but it perfectly illustrated someone still finding their footing in America a month after leaving Puerto Rico.

Burgess’ voice was pristine throughout the show, and there’s no doubt she has a long theater career ahead of her.

Along with the issue of forbidden love, an all-too-relevant commentary on police brutality against people of color was at the forefront of the musical.

“It’s a free country and I ain’t got the right, but it’s a country with laws and I can find the right,” the white Detective Schrank (Chet Gilmore) said at one point during the show. “I’ve got the badge and you’ve got the skin.”

And the scene in which the Jets nearly attack Anita (a wonderful Angela Pierson, who also choreographed the show) in the drugstore was particularly hard to watch.

As “West Side Story” features this us-versus-them mentality, it’s appropriate that the connections between the members of each gang felt authentic.

Each crew moved on and off the stage like a true pack, as if they’d been rolling together for years.

“Womb to tomb, sperm to worm,” Riff and Tony said throughout the show.

Because of this connection, group numbers were fun to watch, especially “Cool,” a great number for Loomer, and “America,” with Anita, Rosalia (Marlee Andrews, who played the homesick Rosalia well) and the rest of the Lady Sharks.

The connection between Menzies and Burgess in particular felt like true love, from the moment the pair locked eyes at the dance during curtain call. Before taking their bows while standing on opposite sides of the stage, Burgess blew Menzies a kiss, which he caught.

For all the beautiful singing and dancing, especially the procession and nightmare scene with the whole company, “West Side Story” was not without a few hiccups.

There was a minor wardrobe malfunction in which an actress’s skirt became unzipped and fell away from the lining, but she quickly zipped it back up and moved on.

And the rumble between Riff and Bernardo, which was originally planned as a fistfight but quickly turned into a knife fight, lacked the element of danger such an event required, as the jabs Loomer and Heredia took at one another were too slow for much tension to build before the climax of the scene.

The final scene, however, was as intense as expected.

As a whole, Spokane Civic Theatre’s production of “West Side Story,” though it at times lost the current of energy that’s often felt with live theater, was a moving production of, as Bart calls it in his director’s note, “one of the greatest pieces of theatre ever written.”