Humble theater, huge show from Stained Glass

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The female cast of West Side Story during “America.” On the top left is Krishma Steele and Maria Butner. At the bottom left is Mary Upchurch, Charee Cuthrell and Christina Ward. On the far right, Ann Davis-Rowe as Anita. (Jenny L. Viars, Dancing Lemur Photography)

by Chris Nafekh

Alvin Tyndall, a stout man with white whiskers and glasses, stood behind escalating rows of plastic chairs and in front of an urban-industrial set. It was a maze of metal poles and platforms, spray-painted like MTV graphics from 1980.

The set was cold as life on the streets — hard and unforgiving. But on the top platform stood a pot of roses, confined by a fence like a prisoner in a cell. Perhaps it was purposefully placed; was the illicit love of Tony and Maria, the musical’s two main characters, not confined by social restraints?

West Side Story is a more contemporary retelling of Romeo and Juliet; it’s a well-known story of forbidden love, family and race. Maria is a young Puerto-Rican girl whose brother leads a street gang: the Sharks. She falls in love with Tony, a white boy whose best buddy is leader of the Jets. And wouldn’t you know, the Sharks and Jets hate each other like Montagues and Capulets.

“Things were crammed into holes in buildings and within this confined space with fences and ladders… all the people had to live,” said Tyndall, the artistic director of the Stained Glass Playhouse in Winston-Salem. “And when you put two cultures slammed together in the same amount of space, you have warfare.”

Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein wrote the play to emphasize the challenges of urbanization; the groups forced to live in these places clash culturally, morally and violently. It’s hard not to consider current events when watching West Side Story. That’s part of why the Stained Glass Playhouse, which is connected to Marvin United Methodist Church, wanted to make the 1960s play its own. By localizing the play, the Playhouse rekindled a conversation on race relations.

Before the show’s run began last weekend, the small set that couldn’t have been bigger than a mid-level apartment looked still and lifeless. From behind the curtain in a practiced Puerto-Rican accent, a woman called, “We’re readyyyy!”

Soundcheck ensued and soon the lights dimmed. And out of nowhere, the cold, hard set vibrantly transformed into a New York alleyway. Snapping, shooting, running, hooting, the Sharks and Jets danced naturally. Every cast member took the stage during the high-school dance scene, one of the plays most grandiose moments. Though they huddled together only feet apart, the choreography was mostly smooth and precise. As if the stage was a mile wide, the actors moved around each other with ease, dancing to Bernstein’s music and singing Sondheim’s libretto.

Left, Stephen Howard playing Tony. Right, Gillian Thornton as Maria. (photo by Jenny L. Viars, Dancing Lemur Photography)
Left, Stephen Howard playing Tony. Right, Gillian Thornton as Maria. (photo by Jenny L. Viars, Dancing Lemur Photography)

The film West Side Story has a bustling grand overture that captures the scenery perfectly — when it’s performed, one can’t help but think of Manhattan. It’s like hearing “Rhapsody in Blue” after watching Fantasia 2000. The imagery sticks to music like an idea on paper. But if Stained Glass Playhouse had an orchestra, there would hardly be room for an audience in the cramped space.

“We have a full orchestra in the balcony,” Tyndall said, gesturing towards the back left corner of the room.

He isn’t kidding; above the set is a covered balcony from which music is projected. During the performance, the audience can see musical director Marilyn Gaylord wave her hands, swiftly conducting the Playhouse musicians. The compact band is made up of a flute, clarinet, trombone, a drum set and one accompanist. A keyboard is no replacement for raw strings, but unless you’re a perfectionist, the difference isn’t distracting. The show-tunes are vibrant and well orchestrated; Gaylord does well with what’s available.

“It’s a small orchestra, but it works for a small space,” Tyndall said.

Although there were minor disparities in the first act, the cast proved to have abundant hidden talent.

Stephen Howard embraces his role as Tony, Maria’s beloved. Howard has a soft voice and is always on pitch; he’s one of the show’s best vocalists. His acting skills are seasoned — this is one of several high-end musicals he’s performed in. Howard plays the perfect boy in love, but his falsetto needs serious work.

He has a natural chemistry with leading lady Gillian Thornton, who sang Maria’s part with a voice bigger than herself. “I Feel Pretty” complements her voice, which resonates around the room delightfully in full, pleasant tones. What’s more important, she and the other female actors were visibly happy during the song — there was a joy on stage, something more than the pretend emotions taught in acting school. Her voice evokes, renders and shapes emotions like nobody else on stage, be it happiness, sorrow or affection.

Though the first act’s vocals and choreography were slightly rocky on Friday night, a grand finale to “America” proved that Stained Glass Playhouse could put on a small, successful rendition of West Side Story while remaining true to the play’s spirit. During the second act, the halls of Stained Glass Theater disappeared until a little alleyway, Doc’s drugstore and the dress shop were all that was left. At first glance, it didn’t seem plausible, a small venue like Stained Glass Playhouse showing an immense musical like this. But after the show, the cast and crew bowed to a standing ovation.

  • Mark Seatvet

    Thank you for your review. The set was actually DESIGNED,drafted and built by Mark Seatvet.You write very well of it but left out the designer’s name (and the Director’s, I should add. ) out of the review. I am not particularly vain, however the very longstanding press theatrical review minimum is quite simply that–the minimum. I do hope you can return to the Stained Glass Playhouse for future works.