REVIEW: West Side Story

An American Classic Plays Throughout July at Flat Rock Playhouse

By Steve Wong


Some stories just never get old, and Flat Rock Playhouse is telling the classic West Side Story this month with a cast of young actors who not only sing and dance to our delight but pluck at our heartstrings when true love is tragic.

It’s never easy to produce a classic and megahit musical such as West Side Story: The bar is set high and fond memories are hard to let go of. This is especially true since in the past few months, the movie version was redone, igniting a new wave of international awareness. But Flat Rock Playhouse has never been a theatre company to shy away from a challenge. Sure, the late Natalie Wood will forever be remembered as Maria, but make room for Marilyn Caserta, who is knocking them dead with her incredible singing voice, nimble dancing, and all-in acting at Flat Rock. From the romantic fire escape scene until we see her collapsed on the stage in grief, Marilyn commands the stage.

Equally engaging is her co-star Brandon Keith Rogers as Tony, a member of the New York City gang The Jets, who is trying to put gang life behind himself but finds he’s torn between true love and gang loyalty. Brandon is a North Carolina native with a solid resume of television and stage work. He and Marilyn pair nicely with their singing and dancing, but the real charm comes from their stage chemistry. West Side Story is a violent story about rival gangs in the 1950s in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, battling for turf. The Jets are mostly young white men with European heritage; The Sharks are young men of Puerto Rician descent. Throughout the show, there are elements of racial tension and street warfare, but through it all Maria, who is Puerto Rician, and Tony’s love never wavers and is only lost in death. Inasmuch that West Side Story is a story about New York City gangs, it is a true love story, and actors Marilyn and Brandon portray that love that shines through when all else is lost.

It must be noted that I’ve not seen this many men on a live stage in a very long time. But when the story line calls for two gangs of men, you need them. Thankfully, casting took into consideration the need for men of color to keep it real.  Choreographer Matthew Glover is highly commended for the dance routines that incorporated elements of jazz, ballet, ballroom, and Latin moves. At times, even the fight scenes by Bill Munoz seem to have a sense of beautiful movement about them.

Knowing that West Side Story is a play that needs stage space, I was a little concerned that Flat Rock Playhouse’s stage might be too small for the big dance number and fight scenes. My compliments to Director Lisa K. Bryant and her staff for making my concerns mute. If anything, the intimacy of Flat Rock Playhouse made both the dancing and fighting feel immediate and personal, and the concerns of stage space were never a problem.

Admittedly, there are a lot of actors in this show. There were seven Jets, five Sharks, plus each gang had its “girls,” which accounted for eight, plus The Sharks’s Maria and Anita, the gang leader’s girl. There are also four “adults” and the soloist Claire Griffin. Bryant’s excellent direction kept all these actors and their characters highly definable and identifiable, which is no easy task. As gangs with girls, the big dance scene in the first act is probably one of the most memorable with its underlying racial tensions and the first meeting of the star-crossed lovers. Here the dancing, acting, and plot line come together perfectly to create new lasting memories.

The supporting roles of The Jets’s leader Riff (played by J. Taylor Wright), The Sharks’s leader Bernardo (played by Eddie Maldonado), and Anita (played by Gabriella Enriquez) are very strong. Taylor and Eddie are the tough guys, ready to fight and defend. But Gabriella had a special quality of strong femininity that came through at just the right moments. She is also a heck of a dancer!

For the record, West Side Story was conceived by Jerome Robbins. The music is by Leonard Bernstein, and the lyrics are by Stephen Sondhiem. It hit Broadway in 1957 and was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two. In 1961, it was made into a movie, which was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10, including Best Picture. Last year (2021), Steven Speilberg remade the movie, which won one Oscar. Through it all West Side Story, which is actually based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has become a classic American tale of love not quite triumphing over war. Songs such as America, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, and One Hand, One Heart are etched into our musical landscape never to be forgotten.

Thank you Flat Rock Playhouse for bringing West Side Story to Western North Carolina. It is a classic story we love to experience again and again.

West Side Story plays Wednesday through Sunday, throughout July. Tickets are available at

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