by Christopher Frizzelle
A few years back, the 5th Avenue Theatre produced A Chorus Line with all its original Broadway choreography. Seeing it staged like that—the exact gestures, the complicated formations, the style and wit of each physical moment—was a revelation. I'd always liked A Chorus Line, but that was the first time I loved it, the first time I understood how such an oddball, oversexed, often-discordant musical had achieved its legendary status.
So it is with the 5th Avenue's new production of West Side Story, which opened last week, under the witty, creative, flawless direction of Bill Berry.
One inspired choice is his decision to recreate (with longtime 5th Avenue choreographer Bob Richards) the original Jerome Robbins choreography, from the complicated fights in the streets to the frenzied dance-hall hedonism of 1950s New York City. The kicks, the waves, the extensions, the sudden reversals, the figures in unison, the feats of weightlessness, the snapping, the jumping—it's astonishing. Every number is stylish, clever, exuberant, and cool. I kept whispering to the friend who came with me, "Oh my god" and "Ha!" and "Whoa, that's amazing."
Also inspired: Berry's casting. All the principles—Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Riff—are out-of-towners. Why? As noted in the program, "This casting for this production strives to authentically reflect the communities defined in the script."
As Berry himself says, "There are so few roles that exist for any number of specific cultures and communities. To not let that culture have access to these roles is really problematic." And yet in no case do you get the sense that you're watching this or that actor or dancer because they are Latinx or Caucasian or whatever. You are watching them because they are phenomenal performers, and because the 5th has taken the trouble to find them and bring them here and showcase their gifts.
They are paired onstage with a local crew of dancers from Spectrum Dance Theater, several of whom are making their 5th Avenue debut. Also making his 5th Avenue debut is Christopher Lopez, a third-year student at Cornish, in the role of Chino.
Watching Bernardo do a kick-up with a knife in one hand, watching Maria dance naively around her bedroom while singing about feeling pretty, watching Anita transform from the sassy know-it-all of "America" to the haunted survivor of "A Boy Like That," it is hard to imagine improving on this cast.
Arguably the hardest parts to make interesting are Maria and Tony, because they're so sappy and lovestruck, and no one is intelligent or interesting when they're lovestruck. But William Branner, who notes in his bio that Tony in West Side Story is his "favorite role," and who sings the part even higher in places than it's usually sung, does it so well it makes your heart soar. It makes you fall in love with him, like you're some kind of delicate-boned girl from a rival gang. It makes you fall in love with the songs all over again. It makes you fall back in love with musical theater.
West Side Story plays at the 5th Avenue Theatre through June 23.
Bernstein & Sondheim’s “West Side Story” is rejuvenated at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre (now through June 23)
Review by Jeanne Kinley Deller:
It was no surprise that “West Side Story” played to a full house on the opening night of its 4+ week run. The audience was abuzz in anticipation of the latest production directed by Bill Berry (5th Avenue Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director).
With The 5th Avenue’s spotlight on their Rising Star Project, The 5th has added another major dimension to the local draw for “West Side Story.” (If you’ve missed the details, they’re bringing 95 young people together to develop their own production of “West Side Story” in July.)
The musical number, “The Dance at the Gym,” rocked the stage with dynamic choreography, brilliant costuming. and surprising shimmer throughout the theatre.
Danielle Marie Gonzalez, as Anita, was a standout in her characterization across the board. She, in my estimation, carried one of the most difficult scenes to new heights.
A fun, light-hearted “Gee, Officer Krupke” added great comic relief and proved to be the champion crowd-pleaser of the night.
Through its age-old love story, “West Side Story” remains as timely now as ever – you can catch it on stage at The 5th Avenue Theatre in downtown Seattle, now through June 23, 2019. Tickets are going fast.
This production of “West Side Story” is presented in association with Spectrum Dance Theatre, with original choreography reproduced by Bob Richard and features a 25-piece orchestra.