by Michael L. Quintos
Unquestionably one of musical theater's most beloved, iconic classics, WEST SIDE STORY---the stirring Broadway musical that features a book by theater titan Arthur Laurents, music by the incomparable Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by living legend Stephen Sondheim---remains a still-resonant masterpiece of song, dance and story that explores themes still quite relevant even in modern times. Loosely inspired by William Shakespeare's tragic drama about star-crossed lovers, "Romeo and Juliet," the musical is cleverly reset in the tough mean streets of early 20th Century New York City, where two warring teenage street gangs---the Jets, a Caucasian gang, and their rivals, the Sharks, comprised of Puerto Rican immigrants---clash for dominion over their working-class neighborhood.
This monumental piece of stage craft---originally directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins---is buoyed by its gorgeous, enchanting score, believably vivid characters, important socio-political motifs, and timeless, inescapable songs like "I Feel Pretty," "Maria," "America," "Tonight," "Somewhere," (and many more) that all contribute to the show's enduring brilliance, and continues to stir the emotions of repeat audiences decades later and create new fans with each incoming generation that newly discovers it.
This is perhaps why it is no surprise, then, to learn that Musical Theatre West's brand new local revival of this beautiful stage classic is also, reportedly, the 63-year-old theater company's fastest-selling title to date. Now finishing up its nearly sold-out run at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach through this Sunday, February 28, MTW's admirable, epic production will surely endear itself to every single audience member fortunate enough to experience it. And... if you turn into someone like how I reacted to the show on opening night, you too will still be utterly moved to tears... even with this umpteenth viewing.
Right off the bat---in what would end up being a smart albeit safe move---MTW chose to present a rather nostalgic iteration that closely harkens back to the mood and feel of the original 1957 stage production (plus hints of its Academy Award-winning 1961 film adaptation), rather than offer its local regional audience a production that mimics the grittier 2009 bilingual Broadway reboot (whose national tour extension visited Southern California around five years ago to much-deserved fanfare).
While that latter revival was indeed fresh and spectacular, nothing beats going to back to the power and intentions of the Robbins-helmed original, which this production---directed with grand gestures by Joe Langworth---successfully honors and emulates. In essence, this WEST SIDE STORY is a satisfying trip down memory lane, reaching back far enough to allow the original material to shine and reverberate.
While sometimes this approach may come off as an easy cop-out and a quicker solution to produce an existing, familiar show, in this case, MTW does so in spectacular, nostalgia-baiting fashion, hitting every quintessential touchstone of the show with great results. The actors even occasionally manage to give fresh reads to their lines---with more impact, in some instances.
And, of course, as soon as that infamous opening prologue begins---still to this day, one of the coolest opening numbers in musical theater history---I always get goosebumps.
Here, Bernstein's iconic, sweeping score comes alive even more vividly thanks to this production's use of the original Broadway orchestrations performed by a phenomenal 30-piece orchestra under the expert direction of David Lamoureux. Full, huge pit orchestras are now a rarity (if there at all) in these budget-conscious times, so to hear the full, glorious range of what Bernstein intended right here in a regional, Broadway-comparable theater in Long Beach is such a wonderful treat.
Visually, the production utilizes serviceable if unremarkably spare sets that satisfy in conveying locales and spaces. Much of the action is mostly concentrated on a spinning structure that houses Doc's store, the dress shop, Maria's bedroom, as well as the infamous balcony/fire escape where the two young impulsive lovers declare their love for each other in heartfelt song. In all honesty, though, this structure merely exists as a muted canvas for Jean Yves Tessier's lighting design and Karen St. Pierre's colorfully diverse costumes that drape this impressive cast.
Yes, center stage of MTW's WEST SIDE STORY is an excellent assemblage of talented young actors, all of whom have an authentic resemblance to the ages of the characters they are portraying. Oh, and um... they're pretty amazing singers and dancers to boot.
And much like Shakespeare's tale of two opposing households embroiled in a bitter tug-of-war, WEST SIDE STORY, too, finds two factions on opposing sides.
As Riff, the leader of the paler-hued Jets, Tyler Matthew Burk is effectively charismatic and exudes cool and confidence with every appearance. His ardent apostles, a crew of charming, delightfully rambunctious delinquents played by Adam Trent (hothead Action), Daniel Kermidas (volatile A-Rab), Dylan Hoffinger (adorkable Baby John), Jeffrey Scott Parsons (Snowboy), Colby Hamann (Big Deal), Tyler Scherer (Diesel), and Andrew Koslow (Gee-Tar) all create a convincing make-shift family of tight-knit brothers, and are all absolutely terrific in their energetic ensemble numbers together ("Cool" and "Officer Krupke" are show highlights).
Extra kudos to Kristin M. Morris who plays eager, gender-bending Anybodys, who ably goes toe-to-toe with his cooler, testosterone-heavy idols, even if they don't necessarily want her around.
Across town is the territory ruled by the Puerto Rican Sharks, with Cooper Howell's strong-willed Bernardo seated at the head of the (war council) table. His loyal squad with killer dance moves includes Julian Marcus De Guzman (who plays Bernardo's right-hand-man Chino), Jonathon Grant (Pepe), Julio Catano-Yee (Indio), Benjamin Roeling (Luis), Steven Rad (Anxious), and Eddie Gutierrez (Nibbles). Because author Laurents did not really allow for further character exploration of Bernardo's minions like he affords each individual Jet, we do get to spend a bit more time with the women in this side of town, particularly Bernardo's sassy, self-assured girlfriend Anita---played with palpable ferocity by the outstanding Lauren Boyd.
While the two gangs continue their on-going feud, bubbling just underneath the surface is the story's central tragedy.
We soon meet Riff's best friend (and former Jets co-leader) Tony, played by the very likable Michael Spaziani, who has decided to abandon the street gang and get a---gasp---job! Spaziani seemed slightly tentative in his first song, the optimistic "Something's Coming," but soon becomes more confident vocal-wise as the show moves forward (a nice, if coincidental parallel to his own character's mandatory maturation). Tony later has an instant meet-cute across the gymnasium dance floor with sweet ingénue Maria (Bernardo's newly-immigrated kid sister!), played by the lovely-voiced Ashley Marie. This romantic "incident" triggers a chain reaction of increased violence between the Jets and the Sharks, just as Tony and Maria fall madly, sky-high in love with each other in secret (well, okay, probably the worst kept secret ever).
Sprinkled amongst the angst and hormones are the few adult characters, each presented as an outsider incapable of truly understanding the volatile, highly-emotional nature of being a young person---which, apparently, never really changes no matter what era you grow up in. As the authority-abusing (and creepily racist) Lt. Schrank, Gregory North gives his role a convincingly towering, eerie presence that easily justifies why both the Jets and the Sharks hates him. Beside him is Kevin F. Story who does a great job playing Schrank's lackey, the plump, bumbling Officer Krupke. On the less threatening side is Stephen Weston, who plays super-square, out-of-touch school official Glad Hand, who tries in vain to curb the conflict at the school dance by forcing a co-mingling of the two factions. Poor guy just gets insulted for this efforts. And finally, there's Doc, owner of the local drug store where Tony works and the one true ray of reason and compassion in the narrative. Played with heart and endearing empathy by Paul E. Zegler, Doc watches helplessly as the teens implode all around him.
In keeping with the smart mounting of a very "traditional" version of WEST SIDE STORY, MTW has also put in place the recognizable choreography that is instantly reminiscent of Robbins' signature work in the original stage production as well as the motion picture. Recreated by choreographer Hector Guerrero, the cast tackles these iconic, picture-perfect dance moves with bold tenacity and great aplomb. Seeing it come alive on stage once again reminds us all not only how beautiful Robbins' work is even by today's highly-acrobatic standards, but also the fact that it takes a certain kind of "triple-threat" performer to pull off such an undertaking. WEST SIDE STORY is a performance-demanding show that requires strength in all three musical theater disciplines, and this company appears to be blessed with a lot of them. Besides the rousing "Dance at the Gym" and the memorable "America," the show also presents a lovingly ethereal "Somewhere" ballet that will touch your heart.
Simply put, MTW has once again produced another genuine must-see winner. Their WEST SIDE STORY is a top-notch, classically-reverent, emotionally-satisfying revival that will remind us all about how wonderful this show was... and continues to be.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of WEST SIDE STORY continue through Sunday, February 28, 2016 and are scheduled Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. MTW has also added an extra performance on its final day at 7pm. WEST SIDE STORY is performed at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.