by Aaron Wallace
At Theater West End, you've entered the world of WEST SIDE STORY before even taking your seat. Getting there requires a walk across the blue-collar, gang-ridden streets of 1950s New York in the Upper West Side.
There's graffiti on the floor beneath you and the walls all around. T-shirts hang out to dry on clotheslines over your head. There's a basketball hoop on the cage-wire fence the band sits behind. You might even be seated next to a fire hydrant or a traffic cone. It takes a moment to remember that this same space was home to Madison County's bridges just a couple months ago.
The distinct sense of place and time is director Derek Critzer's biggest achievement in this immersive production of West Side Story, Theater West End's third full-fledged production and a consecutive win.
Most will already be familiar with Jerome Robbins' musical, with a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. But for those who aren't, the summary is simple: it's Romeo & Juliet with a script and setting all its own.
The fact that this is one of the most oft-produced shows in all of musical theatre belies just how tricky it is to pull off. For one thing, it's known for a distinctive style of dance... and for songs that require heavy-hitting voices. Casting requires finding a handful of triple threats. And then there's all the social baggage to deal with. (Race, sexual assault, and American identity are among the show's most pervasive themes.) WEST SIDE STORY is simultaneously a show primed for this precise political moment and also entirely out of step with it.
Critzer and his crew have handled the challenges well. The dancing here is good and sometimes even impressive, if maybe not quite ready for Spielberg's next casting call. (The famed director is currently working on a big-screen remake of the 1961 film.) Willow Draper's fight choreography fares even better. The acting and singing, meanwhile, is all quite strong.
Cameron Hale and Tamir Navarro do the hard work of making you believe Tony and Maria fall into a literally diehard romance overnight, and their voices soar on songs like "One Hand, One Heart" and "Tonight." Hale is charismatic. Navarro's voice is especially robust. In a nice touch, she sings part of "I Feel Pretty" in Spanish, with her chorus mates echoing her in English. It strikes me as an effectively compromised approach, the 2009 Broadway revival having put the whole song in Spanish.
Andrea Diaz shows impressive range as Anita, fully owning the stage in fun and flouncy moments like "America" while later bringing urgency and drama to "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love." Her character is a victim of sexual assault (something Critzer warns the audience about in advance of Act I), and Diaz handles the wrenching moment with gravitas.
Speaking of gravitas, Shelly Whittle stands out in a small role as Lieutenant Schrank, the plainclothes top cop whose racism is unsettling but whose performance in Whittle's hands is believable and impressive.
The large cast, with plenty of talent to go around, also includes as The Jets: Michael Cleary, Nic Baynum, Cody McNeeley, Alex Iacuzzo, Christopher Bravo, Willow Draper, Ansley Van Epps, Tiana Akers, and Gabriela Toledo. And as The Sharks: Brandon Fabian Lopez, Daniel Martinez, Justin Ortiz, Alan Pagan, Billy Thompson, Luis Diaz, Samantha Jacobson, Valerie Torres-Rosario, Julia Kreuzer Famiglietti, Yuliet Roget, and Diana Negron. And capably rounding out the adult characters are Frank Siano and Kyle Stone.
The show's technical achievements stand tallest, thanks to lighting by Ashley Laramore, prop design by Frank Siano, and Critzer's compelling creative vision. There is one especially nice moment under his direction - during the reprise of "Tonight" toward the end of Act I, as the music swells, the characters climb ladders that move around in a kind of ballet.
I want to highlight Maestro Timothy D. Turner's musical direction too. His eight-person orchestra sounds like much more than that. (Notably, T.J. Wollard commands seven different instruments during this production; Raymond Sierra Rivera takes on four and Kimberly Speck three.)
Music has consistently been a strong suit for Theater West End. Sound hasn't always been, however. As in other productions here, microphones sometimes swallow lines in WEST SIDE STORY. Has it been enough to dampen my excitement about this new theater and the great work it's doing? No. Nor were the handful of snafus and vocal hiccups I heard during an early performance - one-off incidents (noticeable as they were) that I mention only out of obligation.
WEST SIDE STORY is no more a Romeo rip-off than Hamilton is a history class. It's the show's sense of place and of culture - identity expressed through dance and song - that makes it a masterpiece all its own. It's in good hands at Theater West End, where it runs through February 24, 2019. Tickets are selling out fast. Get yours at the theater's website or by calling 407-548-6285.