By MICHAEL SOMMERS
Musicals come — and then most musicals go.
Yet a handful of them are so replete with passion and the human experience — so superbly conceived, structured, composed and choreographed — that they never lose their punch.
“West Side Story” falls easily into this category. A lyrical fusion of memorable songs, affecting story and dynamic choreography, the classic musical has returned to Paper Mill Playhouse after a 25-year hiatus. The current revival in Millburn is aptly timed: The theater is the state’s pre-eminent house for musicals, and it was just recognized with the 2016 Tony Award given to regional theaters.
The director Mark S. Hoebee, who is also Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, lovingly gives “West Side Story” a traditional staging that is performed very well by a talented company. His fine revival is driven by Alex Sanchez’s faithful replication of those famously high-flying dances created by Jerome Robbins, the original director-choreographer, who is credited with coming up with the idea for the 1957 musical.
Mr. Hoebee fleetly paces the timeless “Romeo and Juliet” narrative about young lovers divided by their warring clans, which the librettist Arthur Laurents tautly updated to a murderous rivalry among teenage gangs in 1950s New York City. Augmenting the speedy flow of the show, Mr. Hoebee’s designers and stage management team sharply achieve the story’s swift transitions in location, such as when the dance at the gym suddenly materializes seemingly out of nowhere.
A 20-member orchestra renders Leonard Bernstein’s tumultuous, jazzy and unforgettable music with satisfying richness under Steve Orich’s musical direction. The clarity of Randy Hansen’s sound design permits every smart syllable of Stephen Sondheim’s flavorful lyrics to be appreciated.
Mr. Hoebee has thoughtfully chosen a lively cast of performers. Their exuberance persuasively captures young people who never give a thought about tomorrow and live only in the passing moment.
The lovers are radiantly depicted by Matt Doyle and Belinda Allyn, who capably convey their characters’ deep anguish late in the show. The clean-cut Mr. Doyle lends a sweet voice and a sweet smile to his believably boyish Tony. Ms. Allyn’s soprano vocals, supported by a distinctive vibrato trill, impart a sense of strength to her otherwise docile Maria.
As the couple embrace on a fire escape drenched in blue moonlight against a backdrop of stars, their fervent “Tonight” duet becomes as romantic a mingling of mood and music as anyone could desire.
Mikey Winslow gleams with a cool confidence as Riff, the cocky chieftain of the Jets. German Alexander gives a lean, elegant physicality to Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The personable members of their gangs sing with spirit and agilely dance through the expressive Robbins choreography with explosive energy and a sort of freewheeling precision.
Other notable performances are delivered by Natalie Cortez as a good-natured Anita — who incisively spits out the sarcastic lyrics of “America” — Maria Briggs as the frizzy-haired Jets admirer Anybodys and Jay Russell as the middle-aged drugstore proprietor whose good sense the young customers ignore.
James Youmans, the scenic designer, and David C. Woolard, the costume designer, also furnished the seemly visuals for the 2009 Broadway revival, which this fluent production closely resembles. The bleak urban atmosphere that the designers create is gritty but never grim, thanks in part to Charlie Morrison’s lighting, which contributes violet, orange and other pleasing tints. The sloping incline of the playhouse’s auditorium affords the audience a particularly good view of the dancing that propels the show.
Enjoying “West Side Story” once again in Paper Mill’s excellent production makes one appreciate the overall brilliance of the musical’s structure and score. Scarcely a single note, word or dance step is wasted, and each contributes to the dramatic impact of a tragic love story.
West Side Story” is at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through June 26. Information: papermill.org; 973-376-4343.
Theater review: 'West Side Story' at Paper Mill Playhouse
By JIM BECKERMAN
Explosive, feral movement is the essence of “West Side Story” — one of Broadway’s unqualified works of art, and a show that might truthfully be called a dancical as much as a musical.
Give all props to Leonard Bernstein’s brilliantly harsh music, the well-put-together book by Arthur Laurents, the effective lyrics (barring a couple of facile rhymes) by then-newcomer Stephen Sondheim.
The real pulse of “West Side Story” is the crouching, leaping, high-voltage dance movements originally created in 1957 by choreographer Jerome Robbins (he also conceived the show and directed the original Broadway production).
And that choreography, re-created by Alex Sanchez, is what keeps the admirable revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse humming through two acts of tension and tragedy. No one is re-inventing the wheel here. As directed by Mark S. Hoebee, this is a legacy production in the best sense: a loving presentation of a classic, with a good cast, buffed and burnished for a new generation of theatergoers.
If there’s anything lacking in the Paper Mill Production – and it’s hardly their fault – it’s simply the shock that “West Side Story” sent through the system of 1957 audiences, something impossible to recapture in 2016. Broadway playgoers 59 years ago were blindsided by the grim story, the squalid setting, the dancing that seemed constantly on the verge of boiling over into violence. Nor were they able to simply dismiss the whole thing as a tasteless aberration. The music and dancing were obviously genius. And the story was, of course, “Romeo and Juliet.”
As you no doubt recall, “West Side Story” re-imagines Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers as the Polish Tony and the Puerto Rican Maria, and updates their setting to a New York tenement district, where rival teen street gangs are slugging it out to control their bit of slum.
Today, everyone knows “West Side Story.” The tunes like “Tonight,” “Maria,” and “Somewhere,” are common currency. The choreography is familiar and much-imitated (Michael Jackson helped himself frequently). The teen gang-bangers that horrified audiences in 1957 now seem quaintly G-rated: they say “cut the frabbajabba” instead of “cut the [expletive].” And what seemed like springing, pouncing movements of juvenile killers now looks like ballet, and nothing else.
No matter. It’s still exciting to see those movements on stage at the Paper Mill Playhouse — to admire again how original, and well-thought-out such scenes as the bebop number “Cool” and the challenge dance at the gym were and are. Tension and release are key to the Robbins style. The music and movement complement each other in interesting ways: Often it’s when Bernstein’s score is at its most frenzied that Robbins’ choreography is at its most minimal. The climax of “Cool” is made all the more exciting because the dancers become, momentarily, almost static. Sixty years later, the dance sequences in “West Side Story” are still a rush.
“West Side Story” is an ensemble piece more than a vehicle for stars. But everyone in the Paper Mill cast contributes to the overall effect.
As Tony, Matt Doyle is well-spoken, well-sung and not too simpering, which is a pleasant surprise (just compare him to Richard Beymer in the movie). “Maria,” performed badly, could verge on the ridiculous. Doyle makes it moving.
Likewise, the Maria of Belinda Allyn isn’t too sugary. She gives sweet voice to songs like “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty,” but can still rage formidably in the anguished climax.
Mikey Winslow is a cocky Riff, German Alexander is a dapper Bernardo, and – maybe best of all – Natalie Cortez is a witty, sardonic Anita. She knows how to deliver a quip, but she is also up to the demands of her impressive duet with Maria, “A Boy Like That” – essentially an argument set to music, entirely operatic, and another example of the range and sophistication of Bernstein’s score.
The large cast sings well, and does all that difficult dancing with vigor. The scenery by James Youmans is impressively bleak, with bare brick walls and looming bridges that add to the sense of claustrophobia.
In edginess, “West Side Story” has since been outdone by even darker shows: “Sweeney Todd,” “Miss Saigon.” In brilliance – the combined efforts of top talents at the top of their game — it remains unique.