West Side Story is a classic in every sense of the word. The musical that debuted on Broadway in 1957, marked the lyrical beginning of Stephen Sondheim on the Great White Way. The acclaimed musical, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, collected five Tony nominations including the win for Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Back in the 60s, it would go on to spawn a healthy run on the West End, an American tour as well as the 1961 film starring Natalie Wood that won Best Picture. When it comes to Broadway, its hard to look at its illustrious history without taking into account the sizable impact West Side Story has made.
The modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic work falls closer to the Leonardo DiCapro & Clare Danes facelift than it does the 1500s play. It transports us to the Upper West Side of New York during the 1950s. It is a solidly blue collar neighborhood whose streets are ruled by two rival teenage gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Sharks are comprised of Puerto Ricans while the Jets draw from the more established Polish-Americans. There is a lot of mistrust by the Jet youths, seeing the Puerto Rican immigrants coming in and stealing their father’s jobs. They are largely being scapegoated for worsening economic conditions befalling the area.
The musical opens with a street scrap scene in which rival gang members fight through dance. I’m not talking about some modern day dance-off. This is a choreographed scene that mimics fighting moves with the grace and fluidity of dance. Dance plays a key role in West Side Story. This is one of the few musicals I’ve seen where the music actually takes a backseat to the choreography. The dance numbers are highly elaborate and complex, bordering on ballet at times. Basically, all action of the play moves through dance, and the well conditioned actors were noticeably spent after key numbers. Needless to say, Robbins’ Tony Award was well deserved.
Maria (Maryjoanna Grisso) has recently immigrated to America and is the sister of Bernardo (Andres Acosta), leader of the Sharks. Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Michelle Aves), invites her to attend the school dance which is comprised of Sharks and Jets making nice for the evening. Maria stumbles upon Tony (Addison Reid Coe), a member of the Jets, and is at once smitten. In her love haze, she fails to register that Tony is part of the group who her brother has sworn to destroy. And so begins the illicit affair which threatens the very fabric of both group’s existence.
From here, there is lot of Tony singing to Maria on the fire escape, the two pretending to be married and general sneaking around to conceal their mammoth secret. As tensions between the groups continue to heat up, a rumble is scheduled to settle the matter once and for all. Jets leader, Riff (Theo Lencicki), wants it to be a weapon fight, but Tony wisely dials back the potential for mass destruction, convincing the groups that there should be a fist fight between two chosen members. Upon finding out about the coming smack down, Maria pleads with Tony to end the violence. Tony reassures her that he will defuse the situation, but Tony’s loyalty to Riff proves too much for his shaky promise.
I think we’ve already established that West Side Story is a theatrical classic so there is no point really trying to counter that fact one way or the other. Sure, the set designs are lacking by today’s standards (basically sheets and a few roll away props), and the costumes are horribly bland. The later has more to do with adding authenticity to the working class background of the characters. Where West Side Story really excels is in its dance numbers. They are pervasive throughout the musical, and really support the entire production. I can’t see this play having the gravity and impact that it does without them. The Leonard Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics are also a critical element of the musical’s success. It features classic numbers like “Tonight,” “Me Siento Hermosa (I Feel Pretty)” and of course the song Barbra Streisand immortalized “Somewhere.” The strong song ensemble ensure that this isn’t an overblown ballet.
The story is also very solid. I found it meandering at times during the first act, and the love story between Tony and Maria not fleshed out very well. It really stepped up the drama and tension during the second act, bringing the story home with poignancy. Our leads also complemented the production very well. Maryjonna Grisso (Maria) had a booming voice that bordered on operatic at times. Addison Reid Coe brought a goofy charm to Tony. Michelle Alves really stole the show as Anita. Her attitude and passion really beamed through in this spicy character.
In all, the touring company of West Side Story retold the classic tale at the Cobb Energy Centre in fine fashion. It was a strong cast whose dancing and singing chops supported the demanding production. It is a great way to relive one of Broadway’s essential works. Its song catalog, the intricacy of the dance and its clever reimagining of Shakespeare’s classic tale make West Side Story a gem to behold.
Writer: Troy Christian