By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
The headlong energy of youth was on ample — no, make that spectacular — display over the weekend in Maspeth, Queens, at the Knockdown Center, a former factory where a wonderfully energized, energizing production of “West Side Story” was presented for just three performances, under the auspices of Carnegie Hall and the Weill Music Institute.
A culmination of the Somewhere Project, a citywide exploration of that classic 1957 musical that began in January, the production mixed professional actors with 15 high-school-aged apprentices in the cast, supplemented by a whopping chorus of 200 high school singers from 26 schools representing all five boroughs. Conducting the lush 40-piece orchestra was the eminent Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who was once a protégée of Leonard Bernstein, the composer of “West Side Story,” of course.
The site was fitting for this nontraditional but nevertheless faithful production, which essentially dispensed with sets and featured simple, contemporary costumes by Tracy Christensen. The show was performed on a long, rectangular stage made to resemble a strip of roadway — a drag strip, you might say — with the audience seated on three sides, some at tables and some in bleacherlike seating.
Festive strings of lights hung above the stage, but it took me a while to even notice, since so much blazing radiance was coming at me from the young performers. The dancing, in particular, was so thrillingly ecstatic that I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of the high-flying Jets or Sharks took an errant leap and landed on one of those stage-side tables.
Conceived by and directed with a fresh eye by Amanda Dehnert, this production had an informal feeling, with the actors announcing the scenes, settings and times of the action. But this smattering of meta-theatricality didn’t detract from the show’s dramatic impact. Nor did the colorblind casting. The Jets weren’t all white, the Sharks weren’t all Puerto Rican, and it didn’t matter a bit. They were easily identified by the color of their varied running shoes: red for the Jets, lavender for the Sharks. (It was, I’ll admit, a little disconcerting to see a man bun on one of the Jets, who we associate with crisp 1950s cuts.)
Skylar Astin, seen onstage in “Spring Awakening” and on film in the “Pitch Perfect” movies, made for a forcefully moving Tony, with a powerful voice and a palpable ardor for his Maria, played with blooming innocence by Morgan Hernandez, one of the non-Equity members in the cast, a freshman studying musical theater at the Boston Conservatory
As Maria’s brother, Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, Donald Jones Jr. was a virile presence, his love for his sister flaring into menace when he learned of her clandestine romance. Manny Stark brought a cocky edginess to Riff, leader of the Jets. And Bianca Marroquín was a sultry Anita, whose near-rape sets in motion the events that bring the musical to its tragic climax.
Supplementing the young performers, in sterling fashion, were the stage veterans Chuck Cooper, as both Doc and Officer Krupke, and Peter Gerety as Schrank, along with Stanley Bahorek as Glad Hand.
This production retained much of Jerome Robbins’s celebrated choreography, with interpolations or adjustments made by Sean Cheesman in certain numbers, in some cases to accommodate the unusual shape of the stage and the placement of the audience. Mr. Cheesman also created new choreography for the high-energy “Dance at the Gym” number. I felt jarred only during the “Somewhere” ballet sequence, when the transition between Mr. Robbins’s classically based steps and Mr. Cheesman’s less formal, contemporary style became apparent. In any case, the dancing was breathtaking in its exuberance: Here was the raw energy of youth channeled into formal patterns that nevertheless captured perfectly the characters’ emotional intensity and abandon.
I sat at the far end of the stage, the furthest distance from the orchestra, and there were moments when the balance between (amplified) voices and (amplified) musicians wasn’t perfect. But to hear this rapturous score played by an orchestra of such size, under the guidance of a first-rate conductor, was a pure pleasure in itself.
For “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere,” the cast members were joined by that supersized youth chorus, mostly surrounding the stage and looking on at the action, holding small candles. The sound of so many voices added a layer of emotional plushness to the songs that was goose-pimple-inducing, and utterly irresistible. So, really, was the entire production, which may have been conceived in part as a public-spirited educational project, but ultimately became a simple yet transporting production of a great musical.
52-19 Flushing Avenue
Credits Written by Arthur Laurents; music by Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Cast Skylar Astin as Tony, Morgan Hernandez as Maria and Bianca Marroquín as Anita