'West Side Story' is as enthralling as it is dark

The Jets strut their stuff at the drug store as they await a "war council" with the Sharks.

Story by Laurie Merrill
Photos by Slaven Gujic
GCU News Bureau

Grand Canyon University’s “West Side Story” is at once a rousing, singing-and-dancing spectacle about two rival gangs sparring over turf and a shattering portrayal of humankind’s ability to turn on itself.

Bernardo (Javaughn Iversen, left) and his girlfriend, Anita (Tarnim Bybee, in red), take part in the dance rivalry between gangs in the gym.

At its heart, it is a timeless, Romeo-and-Juliet themed love story that ripples with the poignancy of unfulfilled longing and doomed innocence. Is their love too pure to survive in a world marred by hate?

“We have magic,” Tony (Preston MacDonald), a Jet, protests to his new love, Maria (Madison Cichon), whose brother Bernardo is the Sharks’ leader.

“Magic is also evil and black,” Maria responds, in a dark foreshadowing.

"West Side Story," which opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Ethington Theatre, has been sold out for several weeks. Individual tickets will be sold on a performance-by-performance basis.

Tony and Maria first meet in the neutral territory of the gym, the scene of a dazzling dance war between the gangsters and their gals. The actors show incredible energy, athleticism and talent as they one-up each other with stunning choreography (restaged by Dance Director Suzannah Keita).

Particularly eye catching is the dancing by Jets leader Riff (Chesney Thompson) and his girlfriend Graziella (Abby Neighbors) and their antagonists, Sharks leader Bernardo (Javaughn Iversen) and Anita (Tarnim Bybee).

Star-crossed lovers Tony (Preston MacDonald) and Maria (Madison Cichon) profess a love that will be tested by hate.

Against this dramatic clash, Tony and Maria make eye contact — and are pulled by the irresistible force of new love across the gym floor to one another.

Afterward, Bernardo turns on Maria.

“Could you not see he was one of them?”

“No. I only saw him,” Maria says.

The Sharks get ready to rumble the Jets.

When Tony and Maria later meet and confess their feelings, they perform a rendition of “Tonight” that is filled with heart-melting sweetness.  

Cichon’s soprano is as enchanting as her acting, and MacDonald is absolutely convincing as a man transformed by love.

Bybee, in the role of Anita, captivates with her singing, dancing and range of emotion.

The rival groups have everything in common except their skin color. But they are filled with enough fear and hate to want to hurt each other and win in a rumble.

“Get smart, you stupid hoodlums,” warns Detective Schrank (Clinton Slay).

“You make this world lousy,” proclaims Doc (Cameron Cluff), owner of the drug store.  

“That's the way we found it, Doc,” retorts Jet gang member Action (Kaleb Burris).

The Jets street gang expresses how much they want to fight. 

There’s plenty of laugh-inducing comic relief, including the hilariously entertaining “Gee, Officer Krupke,” in which the Jets comically explain themselves to Krupke (Logan Barrett).

The first verse is:

“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, 
You gotta understand, 
It's just our bringin' up-ke 
That gets us out of hand. 
Our mothers all are junkies, 
Our fathers all are drunks. 
Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!” 

The scenery (designed by William Symington, scenic designer/properties designer) harkens back to 1950s

Maria (Madison Cichon), far fight, talks to Shark girls about her love.

New York City with a gritty feel, urban look and layers of graffiti, vertical street signs and shirts hanging from an old fashioned-clothing line.

If the hair and makeup weren’t enough, the costumes also differentiate women gang members: shades of green for the Jet women and shades of red for the Sharks.

Even without lyrics or dancing, the music from the orchestra, led by music director Mark Fearey (piano/conductor), would be worth the price of admission.

“'West Side Story' is truly my favorite musical,” director Claude Pensis, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Production, says in the program. “This is, I believe, a a very special musical that has much to say about love, sacrifice, loyalty and the human condition.”

The choreography for the musical, which first opened on Broadway in 1957, is by Jerome Robbins, the music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents.

The score includes “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America,” “Something's Coming" and other favorites. 

Click here for a slideshow. 

At the dance in the gym, Sharks leader (Javaughn Iversen) and Anita (Tarnim Bybee) sizzle as partners.

Featured cast:

Tony: Preston MacDonald
Maria: Madison Cichon
Riff: Chesney Thompson
Bernardo: Javaughn Iversen
Anita: Tarnim Bybee
Action: Kaleb Burris
Officer Krupke: Logan Barrett


Director:  Claude Pensis
Musical Director: Mark Fearey
Choreography restaged by Susannah Keita
Scenic Designer/Properties Designer: William Symington 
Lighting Designer: Claude Pensis
Costume Designer: Nola Yergen
Hair and Makeup Designer: Kay Gray
Sound Designer: Stacee Martinez
Dramaturg: Camryn McCullers

Featured production staff: 

Stage Manager: Becca Mae Owen
Assistant Stage Manager/Deck Manager: Jeremy Carr
Assistant Stage Manager/Assistant Scenic Designer: Jennifer Lang
Assistant Stage Manager: Mandy Tompkins
Assistant Director/Administrative Assistant: James Coblentz

Contact Laurie Merrill at (602) 639-6511 or [email protected].


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