As any Broadway buff will tell you, there’s Broadway pre-West Side Story, and everything else since then.


Back in 1957 when West Side Story first debuted, recent Tony-winners  included My Fair Lady, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game, fun and sunny fare compared to a musical whose leading man and leading lady didn’t have the proverbial happy ending, and whose characters lived dismal lives in the worst parts of Manhattan and hated anyone whose differences threatened their go-nowhere existences.

How must mid-20th Century Broadway audiences have felt about Leonard Bernstein’s jazz and opera inspired score, about Stephen Sondheim’s poetic lyrics, about Arthur Laurents’ Romeo and Juliet inspired book, and above all about Jerome Robbins’ truly revolutionary choreography? How must West Side Story have rocked the world of these Eisenhower-era 1950s New Yorkers and, even more so, of the out-of-towners who make up so much of a Broadway show’s audience?

This updated R & J on the mean streets of New York City may seem tame compared to the gang warfare flashed on today’s TV screens, but its tragic tale of star-crossed lovers remains as powerful as ever in 2011, a story played out daily whether by rival gangs in America’s inner cities or by Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East or by Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.  Only a heart of stone could fail to be moved by the love which ignites between born-in-the-USA Tony and recent Puerto Rican émigré Maria one fateful night at a high school gymnasium—only to be extinguished just a day later on the West Side streets of Manhattan.

West Side Story returned to Broadway in 2009, directed by the then 91-year-old Laurents in a production which won the half-century-old musical the Tony Award for Best Revival. Laurents died earlier this year, only four months after the revival’s final performance, but his vision lives on in its National Tour, now playing at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center For The Arts in a production that sets the bar high for future incarnations.

David Saint now receives credit as director, but regardless of how much is Saint and how much is Laurents, the resulting production dazzles, engrosses, and moves—from a strikingly staged opener which introduces us one by one to the Jets to a simple but profoundly affecting reimagining of the musical’s final moments.

This is the most visually stunning West Side Story I’ve yet seen, scenic designer James Youmans’ sets, David C. Woolard’s costumes, and Howell Binkley’s lighting combining to create a world at once real and stylized.  Standout moments include  rainbow-colored stars turning into streamers as the scene changes from bridal shop to “Dance At The Gym,” Maria’s fire escape transformed into a Juliet’s balcony, and a massive highway bridge which gets lowered over the stage for “The Rumble,” an imposing chain-link fence trapping the gang members inside a virtual cage.

Dance sequences are every bit as breathtaking as you remember them, Joey McKneely reproducing Robbins’ iconic choreography to spine-tingling effect. What a thrill it is to see the Jets and the Sharks leaping across the stage in Robbins’ signature moves. In the grace and athleticism of Robbins/McKneely’s choreography, it’s often hard tell where real life street moves end and dancing begins. From finger snaps to knife fights, West Side Story’s choreography is truly one of a kind. Not only do rival gangs do their dances of menace and death, there are also the mambo beats of “Dance At The Gym,” the Latin foot stomps of “America,” and the graceful moves of the “Somewhere” ballet.

The cast assembled for this National Tour could hardly be better. Irvine’s own Kyle Harris is nigh-on perfect as Tony, and so perfectly dreamy that it’s no wonder Maria falls head-over-heels at first sight. Ali Ewoldt’s glorious soprano is but one reason to adore her wonderfully feisty Maria. A sensational Michelle Aravena acts, sings, and dances the living daylights out of Anita, Joseph J. Simeone is a dynamic, charismatic Riff, and German Santiago makes Bernardo both debonair and dangerous.

Ryan Christopher Chotto (A-rab), Drew Foster (Action), Grant Gustin (Baby John), fight captain Nathan Keen (Big Deal), Kyle Robinson (Diesel), and Cary Tedder (Snowboy) do standout work as the Jets, in “The Jet Song” and “Cool” (both Simeone showcases) and in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” which gives each triple-threat his standout comedic moment. A terrific Alexandra Frohlinger as girl Jet wannabe Anybodys gets to sing “Somewhere” (a Saint innovation) and does so with purity and power.

The Sharks (Dean Andre de Luna as Inca, Tim Hausmann as Federico, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Tio, Michael Scirrotto as Pepe, Jeffrey C. Sousa as Bolo) aren’t given nearly as much stage time as the Jets (with the exception of Bernardo and Chino, the latter engagingly played by Jay Garcia), but they are equally fantastic triple-talents.

Karolina Blonski (Velma), Alicia Charles (Alicia), assistant dance captain Beth Crandall (Zaza), Lori Ann Ferreri (Consuela), Déa Julien (Rosalia), Kristen Paulicelli (Graziella), Dani Spieler (Bebecita), Jessica Swesey (Mugsy), Kathryn Lin Terza (Fernanda), and Kirstin Tucker (Hotsie) sing and dance sensationally as Jets’ and Sharks’ girlfriends, Julien scoring extra points for one of the longest notes ever held on a musical theater stage.

“Adults” Mike Boland (Krupke), Stephen DeRosa (Gladhand), Christopher Patrick Mullen (Lt. Schrank), and John O’Creagh (Doc) make the very most of their cameo roles, DeRosa a particular delight as the oh-so quirky circle dance organizer.

Completing the cast at certain performances are Ross Lekites (Tony standby) and swings Lauren Ciardullo, Ryan Ghysels (dance captain), Nicole Hellman, Thayne Jasperson, and Alexandra Blake Redelico.

Unlike other West Side Stories you may have seen, Laurents’ Broadway revival has the Sharks speak much of their dialog in Spanish, fine and dandy if you can understand the language (fortunately the case for this reviewer), and certainly more true to reality than the virtually all-English original book. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that non-Spanish speakers were getting shortchanged. Also, certain lyrics have been translated into Spanish by In The Heights’ Lin Manuel Miranda, less so on the tour than was the case on Broadway, but in this reviewer’s humble opinion, you don’t mess with Sondheim, and much is lost in translation.

Music director John O’Neill conducts the excellent West Side Story orchestra, with sound designer Dan Moses Schreier insuring a flawless mix of instruments and vocals. Eric Sprosty is stage manager.

Despite any linguistic qualms I may have about Arthur Laurents’ West Side Story, the National Tour of his Broadway revival makes for a spectacular production, one that had me hooked from the opening chords of “Prologue” to its devastating final moments. This West Side Story sets the standard by which all future productions will be measured.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
September 6, 2011

Photos: Joan Marcus

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