Written by Nancy Churnin, Theater Critic
FORT WORTH — After all these years, I didn't think West Side Story could make me cry. But it did, more than once. Sixty years after this take on the Romeo and Juliet story by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents astonished Broadway, Casa Manana has not only cast the leads, brilliantly played by John Riddle and Addie Morales, the company has made the novel move of going back to the original conception, complete with Jerome Robbins' Tony Award-winning choreography, here reproduced in its breathtaking entirety by Jeremy Dumont.
As with An American in Paris, recently presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park Music Hall and Performing Arts Fort Worth at Bass Hall, it's not just about the beauty of the moves. The dance interweaves its own story of two rival gangs. The hatred and fear each feels for the other is expressed in sharp, angled, tense steps, contrasting with the gentle, rounded moves when the young lovers, Tony and Maria, are together.
Riddle brings a heart-melting lyrical tenor with a stunning range to Tony, a young man who has turned away from the Jets, the gang that had once been a family to him, and taken a job. When he sings "Something's Coming," he draws the audience into his glimpse of a better life ahead and keeps you there hoping against hope. That "something good" that he envisions comes to life in the form of Maria, whom he sees across the crowded room of a dance. Tony's joy, however, is also his problem as Maria, brought to exquisite life by the crystalline soprano and charm of the diminutive Addie Morales, is a recent immigrant and her brother leads the Sharks, who are mortal enemies of the Jets.
Impressively, director Eric Woodall doesn't coast on his leads or the deep bench of acting and dancing talent in this cast of more than two dozen. The performers dig deep to make it fresh, with the joy and anguish that entails. Cassidy Stoner's sassy Anita, the woman who loves Maria's brother, prickles with the complexity of a spirit seesawing between cynicism and belief.
Sean Ewing's Bernardo humanizes the rage of a brother wanting to defend his sister, whom he believes is being dishonored by a member of a racist group, while Adam Soniak's Riff and Adam Jepson's Action reveal how hopelessness about one's future can rot into a toxic desperation to find someone to blame. Greg Dulcie's Lt. Schrank, who detests all "hoodlums," as he calls them, but particularly the immigrants, lends uncomfortable insight into a rigged system. David Coffee's Doc punctures the pain with a searing cry about the senseless loss caused by violence.
Bob Lavalee's black, white and gray set, complemented by Tammy Spencer's black costumes for the Jets and white ones for the Sharks, subtly underlines the stark way the characters see the world. It's a telling contrast with the dream sequence of "Somewhere," when Tony and Maria imagine everyone on both sides emerging and reaching out to each other in the same blue clothes, washed in gentle light by Samuel Rushen, like a little piece of heaven.
Just as West Side Story substituted the American-born Jets and immigrant Sharks for the Montagues and Capulets, this West Side Story provides powerful parallels to our own polarized world. The reminder of how much we still have to learn about the high price of hate 420 years after Romeo and Juliet was published, is enough to draw tears, too.