To borrow some lyrics from the show, “there’s a place for us” theatergoers for the next couple of weeks. It’s in South Portland where The Portland Players are presenting an impressive production of the classic “West Side Story.”

The Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents musical based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” was an ambitious choice for a local company. But any fears that they might have bitten off a little too much were quickly dispelled at Friday night’s opening performance. The Players have done justice to this great show and given it a personal stamp as well.

Director/choreographer Michael Donovan has assembled a formidable cast of 28 performers for this story of ethnic strife among rival teenage street gangs in 1950s New York City.

The Jets, a gang of at least second-generation Americans, are led by the macho Riff, played by David Aaron Van Duyne. They just cannot accept that newer arrivals like the Puerto Ricans, who form the Sharks, are in their neighborhood. When Jet Tony, played by Jason Hair-Wynn, falls for Maria, played by Kristin Riley, who is the sister of Shark leader Bernardo (Brandon Pullen), the stage is set for the push and pull of love and hate among the confused and posturing teens.

Of course, along the way there’s a ton of spirited dance and beautiful music from youngsters trying to be cool, sexy, tough and loving, sometimes all at once. All of this is backed wonderfully by a seven-piece orchestra, directed by Rebecca Michals Rinaldi, that is visible behind a chain-link fence at the rear of the stage.

The set design by Steven Lupien is minimal but functional with two stairways on wheels brought together for the balcony scenes. Lighting by Matt Brann employs some spots and strobe effects to divide up and enhance the action among the cast groupings. Costumes by James Light and Jennifer Miller delineate origins, roles and allegiances nicely.

Highlights were many on opening night, including a fun dissertation by Riff and the Jets on why it’s important to be “Cool” and some hot mambo danced at the gym.

The Shark girls, led by the spicy Anita (Melissa Morad), sang and danced a point-by-point analysis of why they like to be in “America.”

The hopeful romance is well-served by such tunes as the transcendent “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” the last of which was given a fine initial reading by Jamie Lupien. Riley and Hair-Wynn sang well and created a believable chemistry between their star-crossed lovers.

Riley still had tears in her eyes when she and the cast came out for bows at the end. She a good performer but it seems that there’s also a lot of real feeling that went into this fine production.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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