Dateline—Here come the Jets/Like a bat out of hell/Someone gets in our way/Someone don’t feel so well. And there it is again, the chill up the spine—because it isn’t only the words, it isn’t merely the music, it isn’t just those crouched bodies prowling toward us in perfect massed rhythm.
It’s all of it, and all of them, together—Leonard Bernstein (music), Jerome Robbins (choreography), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book)—for one of musical theater’s most thrilling evenings: West Side Story.
And Casa Mañana doesn’t play it cool, boy: from the first pumped fist of the music (Edward G. Robinson and a nimble orchestra are in the pit), this production hits the ground running and sets a blazing pace. Something’s coming: Tony (John Riddle) knows it, and the Maria he hasn’t yet met (Addie Morales) longs for it. But between them and that “something” stand two opposing forces, and enough rage and pride to fuel a Shakespeare play. (FMI, see Romeo…or Juliet.)
In Director Eric Woodall’s vivid visual conceit, these two sides couldn’t be more clearly drawn: the white “Jets” dress in blacks and grays, the Puerto Rican “Sharks” in whites or creams. It’s a battle over turf—specifically, a ragged West Side Manhattan neighborhood of the 1950s, where earlier European immigrants—Poles, Slavs, Italians—face an influx of new strivers from Puerto Rico.
You don’t have a West Side Story without a great Tony and Maria—and Riddle and Morales are lovely together. He’s tall, she’s tiny, but they fit just fine, and both have the pure, heart-full voices they need. As a singer, Riddle has the first act solos to himself, with one passionate, hopeful song after another: “Something’s Coming” followed by “Maria” and “Tonight.” His duet with Morales, a tender “One Hand, One Heart,” is sung intimately but with enough bell-clarity to reach the back rows.
Morales, who celebrated her 20th birthday during rehearsals, is properly enchanting in “I Feel Pretty”—the audience is her mirror as she faces out from the stage, dancing in anticipation of her first night as “a young lady of America.” She and Riddle team again on the dreamlike “Somewhere,” a prayer of hope for their future that becomes a gentle dance sequence for the ensemble (this time costumed by Tammy Spencer in the pale blues of a peaceable kingdom).
Sean Ewing has a bad-boy dignity as Maria’s older brother Bernardo, and Cassidy Stoner is a fiery, sensuous Anita, Bernardo’s girl, her whip-quick footwork a pleasure to watch. Adam Soniak’s fine voice impresses as Riff (Tony’s best friend, and the Jets current leader) in both “Jet Song” and “Cool.” Adam Jepsen leads the pack for the edgily comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” and Amber Marie Flores and Stoner do equal justice to the cutting humor of “America”—here sung in the girls-only version of the original (not the movie). Director Woodall has clearly given careful thought to the smaller roles, and it shows in actors who make a few lines count for a lot—notably Jacob Rivera-Sanchez as shy Chino, the boy Maria’s family hopes she will marry; and Jill B. Nicholas as clever Anybodys, the wannabe (girl) gang member the Jets won’t let in the door.
The grownups in the room are there to tie the story to the wider world, but three veterans bring grit and life to their portrayals. Greg Dulcie and Bob Reed are the law, police lieutenant Schrank and beat cop Krupke. Through them we get an uneasy sense of the frustrations, and the rough and ready methods, of police who are hard on everybody…but clearly on the side of people who look like them. “I got the badge, you got the skin,” Schrank tells Bernardo. David Coffee is genial and clueless as a dance “emcee” (his wig is a Catherine Petty-Rogers marvel) and viscerally all-in as Doc, the drugstore owner who hires Tony and would go a long way to keep him safe. “Why do you live like there’s a war on?” he cries, desperately hoping he won’t have to see any of these boys to an early grave.
Like sound designer Kyle McCord’s heavily tolling bells, Bob Lavallee’s set design sounds a brooding note of its own. This is a world of dark steel girders and fire escape landings, broken only by slender bright-metal ladders that seem to shout “escape” as they lead the eye up and away. Slit windows pierce brown brick walls and tell everything we need to know about the fears of the people who live in this “who wants it?” part of the city—ironically, the same blighted neighborhood where Lincoln Center (with Bernstein conducting, dancers dancing, and gangs gone) would be built only a few years later.
But songs aside, lovers aside, West Side Story’s internal combustion engine runs on dance, dance and more dance. Critic Walter Kerr called Jerome’ Robbins’ dances for the 1957 Broadway production “savage, restless, electrifying.” It’s the highest of high bars, and there are more than a few moments when choreographer Jeremy Dumont’s reproduction of Robbins’ work comes through in high style. For a company working with limited rehearsal time they’ve done very well, though some sequences feel a bit lacking in the quick, explosive pop of movement we’re looking for. And Dumont’s variations on the Robbins’ oeuvre are interesting and mostly in the spirit of the thing, though there was a clear case of “Fosse arms” in one number that might have produced a spit take…if only there’d been some water around.
Samuel Rushen’s skills as a lighting designer are so seamless they don’t always draw due attention, but not here. He’s on the spot for every moment: to make Tony’s wishful face shine out of the darkness…to strew the stage with the quietly dancing stars of “Somewhere”…to make our eyes ache from the harsh industrial lights that illuminate the rumble. A battery of stage-level spotlights aim low for the twisting, crouching dancers, and create shadows and lights that keeps us hyper-aware of every move they make.
One might have worried that West Side Story was about due for an “awkward age”—not new enough to be edgy, not old enough to be forgiven its too-clean-cut delinquents and sometimes preachy tone. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem here. Hungry immigrants in a face-off with resentful and underemployed Americans? Check. Law enforcement that’s partial to some and not to others? Check. An American Dream that seems too far off for too many people? Sadly, check. America is a work in progress, and West Side Story still has plenty to sing and say about that.
This is a show that works for just about everyone. You can come for the dancing, or the social commentary, or the fabulous songs—but everyone comes for the love story, and yes, it’s just as good (and sad) as you remember. Go on…don’t we all need a good cry right now?