Must-See WEST SIDE STORY Brings Beautiful Heartbreak & Hope to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater
by Kelsey Lawler
There's a rumble from the orchestra as the lights dim in the Powerhouse. That rumble brings you into the story -- a place, a time, a city. There's anticipation and foreboding. Even if you've seen West Side Story twenty times before -- even if you know it's based on Romeo & Juliet and therefore tragedy is imminent -- the Milwaukee Rep has succeeded in giving every theater-loving person countless reasons to come out and see it once more.
First up, the leads. To have a really good West Side Story, you need a really good Tony and Maria. Boy has the Rep nailed it with this casting. Jeffrey Kringer's Tony is stunningly sweet-voiced, displaying a seemingly effortless, surging range as smooth and rich as cream. For me, his voice is the one to which all other voices will be compared this Milwaukee theater season. His "Something's Coming'" and "Maria" are the standout solos of the show. He also plays Tony with every ounce of boyish earnestness and hope. To put it plainly, he's cute as can be and you can't help but root for him.
Liesl Collazo as Maria is every inch Kringer's equal. She steals scenes by virtue of her innate radiance -- the glint in her hopeful eyes, the fire in her spirit, the singular spark that lights up the stage whenever she's present. She's remarkable. Her voice is a strong soprano -- a worthy match for Kringer's tenor. Their chemistry together? Off the charts and into the stratosphere. Collazo and Kringer really sell the love story. The two gaze into each other's eyes with such honesty, it stirs something in you. It's an electric, first-love feeling that engulfs the entire audience.
Then there's choreography by John Rua. It's not just Rua's thrilling, eye-popping, pin-pick precise moves, but the execution -- somehow both smooth and sharp, heart-racing and entrancing. This is easily some of the best dancing I've ever seen on a Milwaukee stage. In the opening number, the Jet and Shark dancers offer immediate assurance that what will follow will be the highest caliber. During "The Dance at the Gym," the Shark and Jet ladies are looped in, bringing a jolt of female energy, the rush of twirling skirts, and an "I'm feeling myself" air. When it comes time for "Cool," the choreo more than lives up to its name.
Shout outs must be paid to the leaders of rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks. Jacob Burns as Riff is absolute aces. From his attitude to his strong singing voice to his agile moves, Burns is a deserving leader of the Jets. Opposite Riff is Bernardo, played by Jose-Luis Lopez Jr. The two engage in fight choreography by Chuck Coyl -- a stand-out, as the action feels natural, high-stakes, and real. There's actual threat behind these dance-fights, and that's a credit to Burns and Lopez Jr. as much as the man behind the moves.
Another praise-worthy performance come courtesy of Courtney Arango as Anita. Fiery and likeable, her strong belting alto is a nice change of pace from Collazo's soprano. Anrango packs a lot of heat and heartbreak into her scenes, doing so with breezy believability. There are also two Milwaukee greats playing smaller parts in this West Side Story: Jonathan Wainwright as Lieutenant Schrank and James Pickering as Doc. Wainwright could play the role of a hard-nosed copper in his sleep, so suffice it to say, he's as great as expected. Pickering's part is even smaller, but he makes it plenty mighty.
One last standout moment and performance comes in Act Two's ballet and "Somewhere." Having only ever seen the movie myself, and so not knowing there even was a ballet sequence in the staged West Side Story, this dreamy sequence served as a wonderful surprise. Drenched in light and hope, this ballet clad in peaceful white is beautiful beyond belief. Carrying the vocals is Hope Endrenyi as Anybodys -- powerful, lovely, and sincere. This is heart-soaring stuff. Thank you to Director Mark Clements for collecting all the right pieces and creating moments worth remembering with this West Side Story.
As the house lights flicked back on, it took all my concentration to compose myself. I left the theater searching my brain for the last time I'd been so moved. So bowled over by choreography. So impressed by staging. The last time I was so caught up in the thrill of the action and romance that I kept holding my breath. I know I've felt similarly at other Milwaukee-area productions, but the specifics escape me. All I know is this West Side Story is unforgettable.