OK by me in America?

By on July 25, 2018

EPAC presents ‘West Side Story’

I’m starting to wonder if Artistic Director Ed Fernandez and the board of directors at EPAC are extremely lucky with their timing or purposely predicting the wave of social importance of the shows EPAC presents to the public as part of their “theatre that matters” mission. Every show this season has tapped directly into pulse of the American collective, including “West Side Story,” which opened Thursday, July 19, to a full house.

“West Side Story,” set in New York City in the 1950s, at its heart and soul is a treatise on American immigration and race relations — a subject ringing true in our modern times as we wrestle with a country split into a political divide.

While immigration is a fundamental principal of the United States dating to early colonization and throughout our history, it has not always been a shining beacon for the huddled masses as described by Emma Lazarus. Nor is it today. Immigration is on the front lines of a political and social battle now as much (if not more) as it was on the streets of the Upper West Side in the time of “West Side Story.”

I had to know how EPAC was able to choose shows, which are completely relevant to our times, in advance. So, as a rather unprecedented element to a theatre review I gave Fernandez a call after seeing “West Side Story.”

“Show selection is probably the hardest thing I do. It’s quantum physics; there are so many factors and it takes an entire year to figure it out,” said Fernandez, who is currently at deadline to solidify the 2019 season of shows. “It always comes down to the wire. You have to take your chances and we’ve been lucky this year that shows I wanted to do were available. We’ve just had a good streak. As artistic director I always try to get shows that can relate to the audience and things that are topical. When I look at a show I ask, ‘can this show people something about their lives?’”

In that vein we are all invested in “West Side Story,” the tale of two families as adapted from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

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The Jets, made up of caucasians Riff (Colin DiLucido), Action (Zach Haines), Baby John (Bailey Ammons), A-Rab (Jordan Eck), Big Deal (Nathan Todd), Diesel (Sean Varner), Snowboy (Jared Mazeika), and Tony (Brad DeLeone) are at odds with the Puerto Rican influx of Bernardo (Ian Sanchez), Indio (Asher Johnson), Chino (Julian Ruiz), Pepe (Jake McClellan) and others (ensemble) known as The Sharks.

In the eyes of The Jets, The Sharks represent everything going wrong with America: The Sharks are polluting the American dream, staining the legacies of The Jets’ fathers, and need to be put in check before they ruin everything The Jets hold sacred. The Sharks have their own image of what America should be: opportunity, equality, and a safe haven for their heritage. The two sides should never see the same side of their mutual arguments until love plays a fateful card when Tony’s eye meets with Maria (Victoria Gaffey), Bernardo’s sister.

Rivalry has no place in the affairs of the heart, and our tale unfolds as EPAC once again loads a small stage with massive talent and presents memorable numbers like “America,” “Cool,” and “Tonight” in grandiose and impressive form. I don’t know if Fernandez found these actors or if the talent found Fernandez, but either way the result is magic!

“We waited for ‘West Side Story’ until it was just right. I wanted to do this show for a long time … and it worked,” said Fernandez when I asked him about selecting “West Side Story” as part of the 2018 season. “The big thing is that we are a community theatre and there is where you have to start. We have volunteer talent and we have to know who is available without precasting.”

With Gaffey and DeLeone as romantic leads Fernandez, who served as the show’s director, struck gold. Short in stature, DeLeone is massive vocally and reminiscent of a Rat Pack crooner. Gaffey’s vocal skills border on operatic and summon the audience to the edge of their seats especially in the first act number “One Hand, One Heart.” I nearly stood up in applause! Gaffey’s heart-wrenching performance in the shows finale is nothing short of superb. I have a feeling I will be saying, “I knew her when,” as the recent Palmyra High School graduate heads off to Long Island University this fall to pursue a degree in musical theatre. She is that talented!

With “West Side Story,” it was nice to see some new faces on the EPAC stage. Welcome Cara Clase, who played an incredible Anita, and Dean Chasser, who served as Sharks Dance Captain — more on the show’s dance component in a bit.

There were also some regulars who made it into this production. John Kleimo, who always seems perfect for the role of token venerable character, plays drugstore owner, Doc. Young rising starlet Maya Burdick is back at EPAC as a believable and spunky Anybodys. Director (EPAC’s upcoming “Picnic”) and sometimes player Michael Swanson gets in on the act as Glad Hand.

Even DeLeone has graced the EPAC stage before (although I can’t recall exactly when), but most recently could be seen at the off-Broadway Acorn Theatre as the lead in “Dorian Gray,” for which he was heralded for “standing out both vocally and demonstrating the craft of carving out (a) character with interest and edge.”

For a dance-heavy show like “West Side Story” it is easy to heap praise on the choreographer. And rightly so, Kristen Pontz knows what she is doing. If her dedication to EPAC alone is any kind of denominator, the sum of her commitment is how often I see here around the Sharadin Bigler Theatre. She works with the future of EPAC in the Kids4Kids productions and summer camps, where she has taken the talents of youngsters (see Burdick above) to an entirely new level. Her skill is subtle; she’s beloved by the EPAC community who admire here dedication, work ethic, and creativity. Despite its incredible love story, “West Side Story” would be nothing without well-choreographed dance scenes.

So, cut the frabbajabba and get to EPAC to see “West Side Story.” You might just learn what it means to be American. If not, you will definitely be the recipient of an evening of wonderful entertainment from a stellar cast.

The show runs through Aug. 4, and tickets can be purchased at ephrataperformingartscenter.com, or by calling the box office: 717-733-7966.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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