Mishi Schueller and Kimberly Willes in For West Side Story to really work, the actors portraying Tony and Maria have to be marvelous, and in Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's new presentation of this beloved musical updating of Romeo & Juliet, Mishi Schueller and Kimberly Willes are even better in these roles than you'd hope they'd be. The duo is so touching, so emotionally expansive, that director/choreographer Ann Nieman's production is an absolute dream whenever they're on stage, so allow me to begin by discussing Schueller's and Willes' contributions, which should underscore how great this West Side Story is, and perhaps help explain why it should've been greater still.

When Tony is lit up with happiness, the joy Schueller exudes washes over you like a wave. (As those who saw him in Circa '21's Irving Berlin's White Christmas know, the actor is blessed with smile that seems to encompass the length of the stage.) Yet Tony's eventual anguish is as wrenching as his high spirits are infectious, and when, at the play's climax, we see his anger morph into abject despair, suddenly he's less the iconic "Tony" than a desperately sad, desperately scared kid, and Schueller's soulfulness is like a slap in the face; you find yourself taken aback by how moving he is. Though he possesses a gorgeous voice, a few climactic notes appear slightly out of Schueller's range, but they're the only notes in this performance that are, and he comes up with wildly enjoyable throwaway touches: When goofing with Maria in her dress shop, Tony shares a secret handshake with the mannequin posing as Riff; when Maria blows Tony a kiss, he catches it with deliberate, heart-melting tenderness.

A lesser performer might find herself overshadowed by Schueller's efforts. Willes, however, is not that performer. From her first scene, she's a vital, exuberant presence, yet she has none of the sugary self-regard that often waylaid Natalie Wood's film performance. There's a refreshing lack of cutesy about Willes, and considering the concentrated fervor of her acting and the crystalline perfection of her vocals, I can't see how there'd be room for it; she's so fully invested in her Maria that we seem to be reading every moment of the character's youthful experience in Willes' every line and lyric. And at the end, Maria's nearly operatic grief is harrowing because Willes smartly eschews histrionics and performs with utter honesty; it's a beautiful, fully believable portrayal.

By the show's end, the thrilling work of Schueller and Willes should be enough to turn you into a wreck. But I, for one, didn't cry at Friday's opening-night performance - not because I didn't buy Tony and Maria, but because I had such a tough time buying their conflict. The characters' romance is doomed, of course, because it's tied in to the murderous hatred between the Sharks and the Jets. But in Circa '21's production, not only do you barely feel the contention between the gangs; you can barely gauge the brotherhood within the gangs.

Something that's often overlooked about West Side Story is how the entirety of its story unfurls over a day and a half; for the work to make sense, tensions between the gangs have to be extraordinarily high from the outset (and their affection for their own gang members must be palpable). Yet beginning with the opening number, the street toughs here seem to have barely been introduced to each other. The performers hit their marks and make the requisite threats, but the emotions, nearly actor for actor, feel hollow; nothing much seems at stake. A couple of actors make sharp impressions: Ben McMahon's Action, with his simmering hostility, Andrea Moore's Anybodys, with her restless physicality. But more often that not, the gang scenes have no driving force, and the subsequent musical numbers appear tacked-on, and disassociated from the drama. (Enjoyable though the song is, I've always disliked the placement of "Gee, Officer Krupke" in Act II, but here it's positively ruinous; at this juncture, the last thing we need is perfunctory musical-comedy bonhomie.)

This production's lack of threat is detrimental, to be sure. But thankfully, an extraordinary Act II more than makes up for the bumpiness of Act I (it helps that many characters have reduced stage time, or appear not at all), and there's much to be appreciated here regardless of the act. Brett McCormack's scenic design, complete with an enormous, wonderfully functional chain-link fence, is excellent, as are Greg Hiatt's divinely vibrant costumes and Nieman's kicky, ebullient choreography.

Plus, numerous supporting performers are outstanding. Erin Spears, as Anita, is deliciously gregarious and capable of devastating emotionalism; when she sings "A Boy Like That," her power and cadences uncannily recall Bernadette Peters at her best. As Chino, Joseph J. Baez has a lovely scene in which he's almost stricken with confusion and panic, and Jenna Kantor and Megan Kelly, despite having too little to do, explode with personality. (And speaking of personality, Tom Walljasper is strangely double-cast - he plays an aggrieved, bigoted cop and an ineffectual chaperone at the school dance - but is so damned good in both roles that you wouldn't want less of him.)

And, of course, there's Maria and Tony. Whether Willes is delivering an exhilarating, perfectly appropriate rendition of "I Feel Pretty" or Schueller is revealing Tony's ardent sweetness - his aching reading of "We're gonna have kids" is the show's most sublime moment - they go a long way toward making Circa '21's West Side Story, in the end, superior entertainment. The show wraps up with a gratifyingly succinct curtain call that finds all of the participants bowing en masse, yet while I'm all for brevity once the show proper ends, this was a rare case where I wanted a curtain call to be longer; Willes and Schueller, at the very least, more than deserve individual recognition.


For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.

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