By Paul Wontorek
There’s nothing like a multi-million dollar slick staging of a classic Broadway musical featuring the best acting talents available and the greatest creative team money can buy. Then again, seeing the same classic on a high school or community theater level can prove just as exhilarating, with raw, wide-eyed talents giving the material a freshness that’s undeniable. The Carnegie Hall production of the Weill Music Institute staging of West Side Story, set in a warehouse in Queens called the Knockdown Center for just one weekend, offers the best of both worlds and for this 57-year-old icon of a show, the results are nothing short of miraculous.
The Sharks and the Jets are still rumbling, on a long jet runway of a stage, and the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score still throbs and pulses like the New York City of our dreams, especially played by a full orchestra led by music director Marin Alsop and music supervisor Leslie Stifelman. But this isn’t your grandpa's West Side Story. For one, hip hop choreographer Sean Cheesman has added new choreography to the show, which also features much of the original Jerome Robbins dance, recreated for the space by Julio Monge, a Broadway vet who actually danced as a Shark under Robbins’ eye in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. For fans of the original, it’s jolting to see sequences like the Dance at the Gym conceived with a new eye, but Cheesman’s work fits beautifully into Robbins’ and has a modern twist that's vital to this new production’s success.
Director Amanda Dehnert’s multi-cultural cast has an believability that's impressive. They’re not dressed in period clothes, really, and if you don't pay attention to some color-coded costuming (purple for Sharks, red for Jets), you might not know who’s side they’re on. And, although there are Broadway vets like Skylar Astin as Tony Chicago regular Bianca Marroquin as Anita and other adult roles taken by Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, Stanley Bahorek and Peter Gerety, it’s worth noting that 30% of the principal cast are non-Equity performers, including the phenomenal golden-voiced Morgan Hernandez, a college freshman who is a natural talent and a major discovery in the role of Maria. Emotional heft and gorgeous musical moments are also provided by over 200 New York City high school students who make up the show’s off-stage chorus, also taking to the stage for several dazzling staging highs.
Film and TV star Astin, who has only appeared on Broadway once in the original cast of Spring Awakening a decade ago, is a terrific Tony, playing the character’s optimism perfectly and singing the show’s ballads beautifully, in solos like “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” and a thrilling “Tonight” with Hernandez. As Anita, Marroquin is a fiery natural, leading the Shark girls (and—surprise!—guys!) through a showstopping “America” and breaking hearts in her final scene with the Jets at the drugstore. If we’re talking about showstoppers, it’d be a crime to not mention those Jet guys (led by Sam Lips as Action, Clay Thomson as Snowboy, Alex Ringler as Diesel and Emilio Ramos as Baby John) who received mid-song cheers for their “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which was perfection, and Dehnert’s clever use of performers to play the mannequins in an incredibly moving “One Hand, One Heart” sequence.
So, what’s the bad news? Only that this unforgettable, must-see production is closing March 6! With it’s enormous cast and unique staging needs, it’s hard to imagine how, but we can’t help but hope that there’ll be a place for this gorgeous West Side Story somewhere closer to Broadway.