Pioneer meets the challenge of Sondheim's West Side Story


Maria (Michelle Edwards) and Tony (Dustin Hanna)
After nearly sixty years of working on Broadway, the creations of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim have become so highly regarded for their intricacy and high degree of difficulty that people attempting to tackle them are either looked upon as directorially brave or artistically masochistic. This is especially true of his most notable work, West Side Story. Since its debut in 1957, it has become a unicorn for high school musical theatre programs who dare attempt to tame its unrelenting challenge. The brave students and staff of Pioneer High School have faced it head on, and have created a production which is pleasing to the ear and engaging to the heart both in the context of the story itself and in the dedication and passion of their very large company.

The ever-ebullient Steve Dini welcomed me and PHS alumnae Melanie Beck to the PAC last night and regaled me with the history behind this challenging production. "After 42nd Street, we only took about a month off and then jumped into production meetings for this show. We also [in similar fashion to the dance intensives before last year's show] held vocal sessions to prepare the students for this very difficult score." Their preparation paid off by creating a strong sound across the cast, as well as some stand-out leads and soloists.

Riff (Brandon Cruz) and the Jets
From the first notes of the show, the audience was treated to the relentless energy of Riff (Brandon Cruz), who deftly maneuvered through the acrobatic rhythms of "Jet Song" with confidence and style. The rest of the Jets were also highly enjoyable, helped by a dose of simple yet stylized choreography by Susan Dini. The vocal bar gets set even higher with the introduction of Tony (Dustin Hanna), who took a more understated approach to the young lover while showing impressive upper range and falsetto control during "Something's Coming".

In the role of Maria, Michelle Edwards brought an endearing simplicity and approachable honesty to a role that can often become maudlin and disconnected. Her work was bolstered by her impressive vocal skill, opening up easily into higher territory for her solo work and even higher for chord-dressing in large numbers with the entire company.

While the book relies on its Romeo and Juliet inspired lovers, this production also sources its energy from several supporting roles which quickly became audience favorites during the performance. Anita (Erica QuiƱonez) was a delight with her quick-wit and strong physicality, playing very well against a sassy Rosalia (Lauren Germaine) during the classic, "America". Also enjoyable was the hot-headed Action (Nick Vincent), the manipulative and easy-to-hate Bernardo (Cedric Wolk), and the almost midwestern-humored School Teacher (Deets Marchello).

The Jet's Girls
What was truly striking in this production was the use of so many performers on the stage. Different "dance corps" were utilized for select groups (Jet Girls, Shark Girls, "America" Dancers, Jet Chorus, Shark Chorus) to offer many opportunities while attempting to keep the stage unclogged for large scenes. While the effect did cause some occasional crowding and subsequently understated choreography, it was wonderful to see so many students involved so heavily in their school's production.

A review of this show cannot possibly be complete without mentioning the incredible work of the nearly all-student orchestra under the direction of Christopher McCoy. The score for this show is hard enough for the on-stage performers without giving them strong musical backing, so it is even more impressive that the pit was so tight through the many dynamic, time signature and key changes. Special kudos go to Natalie Kanga and Natalie Tom for their crisp and strong trumpet work, the percussionists (both kit and pit) for their strong musicianship, as well as the whole orchestra for tackling the score with accurate instrumentation (eight strings, ten woodwinds, four brass, six piece rhythm section) instead of using unnatural sounding synthesizers.

Watching a show like this is much like watching a tight-rope walker on a high-wire. We all desperately hope for the catharsis of seeing the walker make it safely across, but the experience is definitely heightened by the degree of difficulty of the act itself. It would be an entirely different performance if the wire were only a foot off of the ground. So, to see a public non-magnet high school attempt arguably one of the most difficult musicals of all time and to do it so capably is a testament to the skill, passion, and dedication of everyone involved. They have captured their unicorn, and you cannot help but wonder what they will undertake next year.

Pioneer High School - West Side Story
1290 Blossom Hill Road, San Jose, CA 95118
Through March 31
Tickets are available at Pioneerhigh.org or at the door.
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