MUNY’s ‘West Side Story’ Rumbles In Forest Park
BY: CHRISTOPHER REILLY
When “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957, Pulitzer prize-winning theater critic Walter Kerr wrote, “The radioactive fallout…must still be descending on Broadway this morning.” Fifty-six years later, the fallout from the MUNY’s opening night performance of “West Side Story” is still descending on St. Louis. The production is, in a word, spellbinding.
The play is a musical masterpiece. Jerome Robbins’ explosive and graceful choreography, Leonard Bernstein’s lush and temperamental score, crisp and clever lyrics from a young Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, who based the story on the tale of Romeo and Juliet, merge into a singularly extraordinary work of art. The premise is familiar, but rather than the ill-fated lovers from two feuding families featured in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Tony and Maria are the offspring of two different cultures: American-born Caucasian and immigrant Puerto Rican. The show is, after all, a story about defiant, in-your-face passion in spite of the virulent racism that conspires against it.
The tragic tale unfolds among the tenements, bridges and dirty urban landscape of Manhattan’s West Side, where rival gangs—the Jets and Sharks—vie for territory and reputation. A series of highly stylized confrontations between the Jets and Sharks demonstrate the gangs’ hatred and rivalry, but it’s mostly macho posturing until the “The Dance at the Gym.” The gangs engage in a rousing dance-off while Tony and Maria (beautifully played by Kyle Dean Massey and Ali Ewoldt), our two young ingenues, meet and fall instantly, deeply and irrevocably in love. From then onward, the game of the hard streets becomes serious.
The performance unfolds like a rich tapestry, with beautiful renditions of arias and duets like “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” and the painfully beautiful “Tonight,” played against the dramatic pulse of “The Jet Song,” “Cool,” and the violence of the rumble itself. Offset these with the lighthearted and lively “America,” the flittery girlishness of “I feel Pretty,” and “Officer Krupke,” (which in spite of its candy coating remains a metaphorical flip of the finger) and you get a performance that keeps the audience leaning forward in their seats, fully engaged.
Gordon Greenberg’s direction is masterful, and Chris Bailey has reverently recreated Robbins’ choreography in all its explosive strength, poetic grace and youthful vitality. Through their combined efforts, the show grabs hold and never lets go. At times, the tension caused the audience of 10,000 theatergoers to hold its collective breath.
The performers more than held up their end of the bargain. Kyle Dean Massey and Ali Ewoldt both played their parts with passion and charm. Massey, effective as the leader of the Jets who’s trying to leave the thug life behind, sings the part of Tony perfectly. Ewoldt’s Maria, delicate and beautiful, possesses the soaring voice of a nightingale and when they sing together, it’s magic. Curtis Holbrook as Riff, Tony’s gung-ho brother, is strong throughout, especially in “Cool.” Manuel Herrera gives a memorable performance as Maria’s over-protective and menacing brother, Bernardo. There are very nice turns as well by Kaitlin Mesh as Anybodys, Michael James Reed as Lt. Schrank, and Ken Page as Doc, who comes on strong as the sole voice of morality. He shares in the outrage, anger and befuddlement felt by the audience.
As stellar as all these performances are, Natalie Cortez as Anita—fiery girlfriend of Bernado and de facto leader of the “chicas”—very nearly steals the show. She shines throughout, but it is her number, “A Boy Like That,” where she reaches a new dimension of passion and performance. It astounds.
James Moore’s musical direction of the MUNY Orchestra, the lighting, set, sound and Andrea Lauer’s costuming, make the MUNY’s production of “West Side Story” an unqualified triumph.