Archive for August, 2013

West Side Story

Based on a Conception of Jerome Robbins

Book by Arthur Laurents

Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by Gordon Greenberg

Choreographed by Chris Bailey

The Muny, August 5, 2013


Wow! I’m stunned. Speechless. I’m sitting here writing after seeing West Side Story at the Muny and I’m not sure what I can say that would be adequate to describe what I saw.  As much as I have come to appreciate the Muny and the entertaining productions there, I never expected a production as glorious and wonderful as this. It’s a truly stunning production, world-class in all respects, and it represents the absolute best of what the Muny can produce.

West Side Story is a dramatic musical in the best sense. An update of the classic Romeo and Juliet story, set in the midst of a conflict between rival youth gangs in 1950s New York City (one made up of first-generation Puerto Rican migrants to NYC, the other of the American-born children and grandchildren of European immigrants), it presents the familiar star-crossed lovers theme along with other timeless issues including what it means to be an American, cultural conflicts, the generation gap, and struggles for understanding and finding one’s place in the world.  It lets us witness both the best and worst of humanity, as love and optimism share the stage with intolerance and violence and, ultimately, tragedy. The glorious Bernstein/Sondheim songs and Arthur Laurents’ poetic and sharp book set all these themes ideally, but it takes a great cast and all the right technical elements to present this material with the freshness and immediacy that it deserves, and the Muny’s production delivers on all counts.

The “Romeo” and “Juliet” of this story are the Polish-American Tony (Kyle Dean Massey), a former leader of the Jets, and Maria (Ali Ewoldt), who has newly arrived from Puerto Rico to join her parents and her brother Bernardo (Manuel Herrera), the leader of the Sharks, in New York. Both are idealistic and looking for something new out of life, and after meeting at a community dance, fall instantly in love.   The wonder and fascination of first love is portrayed very well by both Massey and Ewoldt, whose chemistry is electric in the dance scene and subsequent meeting on Maria’s fire escape, singing “Tonight” with strong voices full of passion and excitement.  It’s a relationship that can be difficult to believe without the right kind of chemistry, and Massey and Ewoldt have it, from their first scene together through all the dramatic conflicts of the show.  Tony in particular is a difficult role to cast, since he has to come across as a believable former gang leader as well as an optimistic romantic lead, and Massey is ideal in both respects, with a strong voice to compliment his strong acting and considerable charm.  His clear, expressive tenor sounds great on songs like the energetic “Something’s Coming” and the romantic ballad “Maria”.  Ewoldt, with her gentle-but-feisty persona and strong soprano voice, is an excellent match for Massey, and all their scenes together are wonderful.  Ewoldt also has many excellent scenes with Natalie Cortez as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita.  “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” is one of the best female duets in all of musical theatre, and with the strong voices and presence of Ewoldt and Cortez, it’s a particular highlight here.  Cortez brings all the strength and fiery energy that Anita should have, with a strong voice, wonderful stage presence and strong dancing ability as demonstrated in her best-known song, “America”, and she has sparkling chemistry with Herrera in their scenes together.

Another stand-out in this production is Curtis Holbrook as Riff, the leader of the Jets and Tony’s best friend. In fact, when I heard that the Muny would be producing this show, Holbrook was who I hoped they would cast in this role, since I had remembered his outstanding past performances in shows like Kiss Me, Kate and Singin’ In the Rain. Holbrook plays Riff as strong, cocky and defiant, with all the requisite charm and cool confidence.  He leads the Jets with style on “Jet Song” and “Cool”.  All the gang members, Jets and Sharks alike, are well-cast, with particular kudos to Drew Foster as the high-strung Action, Brandon Hudson as the naive Baby John, Kaitlin Mesh as the gutsy Anybodys, a girl who wants to join the Jets, and to Jon Rua as Chino, the soft-spoken Shark who is intended to marry Maria but whose own life takes surprising turn as the tragic events escalate.   Muny veteran Ken Page also contributes a particularly strong dramatic performance as Tony’s boss, the drugstore owner Doc, who tries to be a voice of reason to the impulsive young Jets.

The conflict is particularly well portrayed in any scenes with the Jets and Sharks together, from the dynamic opening sequence to the jazzy and vibrant dance at the gym, in which their contentious dancing serves as a kind of precursor to the much talked-about rumble that occurs at the end of Act 1.  All the tension builds and continues to escalate, leading that rumble and vocalized in the stirringly staged “Tonight Quintet”, in which the Jets, Sharks, Tony, Maria and Anita all sing of their hopes and goals for the evening.  Alas, nothing goes as planned, and the consequences are tragic.  The rumble is impeccably staged and brings about the first of two extremely rare moments of total audience silence at the Muny.  It’s an intense, gut-wrenching moment punctuated by chiming bells and the chirping crickets in Forest Park. Nothing else can be heard, and the audience members were glued to their seats. The entire show never misses a beat, with all the scenes hitting just the right notes, from the gentle moments of romance in “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart”, to the tension building among the Jets and Sharks, to the comic and angry “Gee Officer Krupke” (a real standout performance), to the truly stunning, impeccably staged finale, which is the most heart-wrenching scene I have ever witnessed at the Muny and is greeted again by that rapt silence and total attention from the audience.   This is a show of both great energy, strong passion, and profound tragedy, and all are fully realized by this superb cast and production.

The action is complemented by Robert Mark Morgan’s meticulously detailed multi-level set, which vividly suggests New York City in the 1950s with its ubiquitous windows, fire escapes, neon and chain link fences.  The costumes are also perfectly suited, and the scene is set with stark lighting and the wonderful Bernstein score, beautifully played by the Muny orchestra.  All aspects of this show work together seamlessly to present this truly memorable, nearly-flawless production.

Even though the Muny has stepped up its game over the past two seasons under the leadership of Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, this is something beyond what I expected to see there. The Muny is well-known for its big, flashy shows and sometimes some good-natured cheesiness, but there is nothing cheesy or over the top about this production. It’s just plain brilliant.  It’s a classic show presented in a way that even the word “timeless” doesn’t seem to appropriately describe, because it’s not just timeless–it’s immediate. It’s here and now. It’s as if this show is being performed for the first time, with all the passion, energy and beauty that this piece demands. This is why I love theatre so much.  It’s full of amazing surprises like this. I’m very glad I was able to witness this Muny miracle in all its glory. This is, without a doubt, the best production I have ever seen at the Muny, and it serves as a more than fitting closer to a truly great season. 

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