Triple threats

The choreographer and the director of the Park Playhouse production of "West Side Story" are delight
Matthew Winning, playing Riff, rehearses a dance with Jacqueline Rosenthal, playing Velma, for the Park Playhouse production of "West Side Story" at Albany’s Washington Park.
Matthew Winning, playing Riff, rehearses a dance with Jacqueline Rosenthal, playing Velma, for the Park Playhouse production of "West Side Story" at Albany’s Washington Park.

Mitchell Finke and Owen Smith concede that they went into the casting process for Park Playhouse’s production of “West Side Story” with some trepidation. After all, how many “triple threats” can one free summer theater troupe hope for?

“It’s hard to find people who can act, sing and dance, but that’s the bottom line for this show,” said Mitchell Finke, who’s handling the choreography for “West Side Story,” opening tonight at the Park Playhouse in Albany’s Washington Park and running through Aug. 11. “Usually they do one better than the others. But we had a lot of talented people try out for this show. We got lucky.”

“We had to luck out to find as many talented people as we needed, and we did,” said Owen Smith, who is directing the production. “We’re a nonprofit; we’re not a big company. To get the talent we did at our audition was great, and to get a choreographer like Mitchell, who is incredibly talented at taking people who are pretty good dancers, or movers, and making them look like professionals, well, we’re very fortunate.”

Finke, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he owns and operates a dance studio, is spending his second summer in Albany, having choreographed last year’s production of “Grease” at the Park Playhouse. Smith, an Albany native who began performing with Park Playhouse as a teenager, directed the group’s 2006 production of “Beauty and the Beast,” and has also served as assistant to Park Playhouse producer Ven Borromeo for the past three summers.

New York talent

While much of the talent for “West Side Story” comes from within the Capital Region, Finke and Smith did go to New York back in March to cast for the two leads, Tony and Maria. Matthew Joseph Greenfield landed the role of Tony and Natalie Stephens will play Maria.

’West Side Story’

WHERE: Park Playhouse, Washington Park, Albany

WHEN: 8 p.m., tonight through Sunday, through Aug. 11

HOW MUCH: Free, reserved tickets $14-$12

MORE INFO: 434-0776

“I’ve choreographed over 100 shows, and these two performers are probably the best I’ve ever worked with,” Finke said of Greenfield and Stephens. “They are very professional, very talented. They are definitely triple threats.”

“West Side Story” opened on Broadway in September 1957 and ran until June 1959, earning five Tony nominations and winning two of them, including Best Choreography for Jerome Robbins. The story of rival gangs and clashing cultures in New York City, the play was a collaboration of Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and was turned into a movie in 1961, winning 10 oscars and 11 nominations.

“Many people consider this the most influential musical in the history of Broadway,” said Smith. “It had a dramatic impact on musical theater as an art form, and much of that was because of the choreography. When the characters get excited and things really start to happen, it’s the dancing that takes over.”

While the Park Playhouse production has to closely follow the script because of copyright regulations, as choreographer Finke does have the freedom to create his own take on the dance routines.

“I’ve seen the show live before and obviously I’ve seen the movie,” said Finke. “There’s some heavy-duty dancing to be done, particularly between the dance at the gym and an eight-minute ballet later in the show. But I’ve challenged this group right from the start and they’ve been great. We learned all the choreography in a week and a half, and now we’ve been fine-tuning and cleaning things up. It’s pretty exciting to see how well we’re doing.”

While the Park Playhouse production won’t try to precisely match the dance scenes as they were performed on Broadway or in the movie, Finke is hopeful his choreography will create a similar sensation.

“People might recognize a move or two from the movie, but what we really want to capture is the concept, the style,” said Finke. “We can’t imitate the choreography from the movie, and I purposely didn’t want to go back and watch it again.”

One thing the audience won’t see is the character of Riff, played by Russ Tamblyn on Broadway and in the movie, doing back flips. Cobleskill native Matthew Winning, however, might surprise you with what he can do.

“He’s not an Olympic gymnast — so he won’t do any standing back flips,” Finke said of Winning. “But he does do some pretty acrobatic things, and we were very fortunate to find him.”

“He’s a great local talent that we had never come across before,” Smith said of Winning. “He’s a perfect Riff for us. He’s a really talented kid who is now making dance a part of his life. He just showed up out of nowhere at the audition, and we were really pleased to get him.”

Bringing it back

Smith, who recently directed an off-Broadway production of “Apartment 3A,” written by actor Jeff Daniels, said the decision to produce “West Side Story” wasn’t an easy one for the Park Playhouse.

“Our audience has been requesting it for years, and while we did do it a while ago (1992), there was some hesitancy about doing it again,” said Smith. “There is some sensitive subject matter in the show, and we always like to make our shows as family friendly as possible. But it’s a classic story and people are aware of the subject matter. If they’re bringing their children, they must think the kids can handle it.”

Justin Cowan, a native of Greensboro, N.C., is making his Park Playhouse debut as musical director, while among the local group of actors in the cast is Joe Phillips as Lt. Schrank.

Smith and Finke are also collaborating on the Park Playhouse II production of “Guys and Dolls,” July 29 to Aug. 10.

Categories: Life and Arts

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