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A production worthy of [a] standing ovation

Back in the 1950’s when newspapers were just beginning to cover the tragic stories of teenage gangs killing each other while waging turf wars, a new show would evolve from these events that would forever change the face of the American Musical. Noteworthy, too, was that this new theatrical form resulted from a collaboration between artistic geniuses Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (score), Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) and a new kid on the Broadway block named Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).

Loosely based upon Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” the show was considered controversial. It was dark and edgy, characters fought and died and it didn’t have the traditional happy ending found in the musical comedies of that era. Moreover, the show was vocally challenging and featured much more demanding choreography than most shows. It was, however, an almost instant hit and won two Tony Awards in 1958 for sets and choreography. Since that year “West Side Story” has toured, become a staple of educational, regional and summer stock theatres, was revived twice on Broadway and was made into a popular Oscar-winning film, which was recently reimagined in a new, Oscar-nominated movie by Steven Spielberg.

The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is currently presenting a magnificent, new arena production here. And while there are a few familiar faces amongst the cast, most of this talented, young company of triple threats are making their Marriott, and some their Chicago, debut. An awe-inspiring evening of theatre awaits patrons, featuring a gorgeous musical, a company of astounding singers with fine acting skills and unbelievable dancing prowess. The theatre gives audiences their money’s worth. Fans who know this show by heart won’t be disappointed, but might find few new surprises in the staging of numbers such as “Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America” and “Somewhere.” And for those lucky patrons who are discovering this American classic for the first time, this is truly a production worthy of the standing ovation it received opening night.

Why? First and foremost is the Jerome Robbins-inspired choreography that’s the hallmark of this musical. It’s reinterpreted here by Chicago’s own gifted dance master, Alex Sanchez. His talented cast throw themselves into each number, dancing with passion and precision. The challenging “Prologue,” the rousing “Dance at the Gym,” the effervescent “America,” the life or death struggle of “The Rumble” and the dreamy, optimistic ballet of  “Somewhere,” are all breathtaking. Combinations of classical ballet, jazz, modern and Latin ballroom make each number more exciting than the next.

Then there’s Bernstein’s gorgeous music, filled with lush, romantic ballads, such as the beautiful “Maria,” “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” The score also offers a few lighter, almost comic numbers of equal opulence, such as “I Feel Pretty,” “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Reminiscent of the 1950’s, during which this musical is set, we get the jazz-infused dances found in the “Prologue,” “Cool” and “Dance at the Gym.” Audiences will find it difficult to resist tapping their feet or swooning over this lovely score, accompanied here by Patti Garwood and her brilliant [nine]-member pit orchestra. This is why the recordings of this musical have been popular, award-winning best-sellers; and why these songs are constantly heard being performed by opera, pop and cabaret artists everywhere.

The entire cast of Marriott’s new production is excellent, with distinguished performances by Vanessa Aurora Sierra, as Anita, and Lauren Maria Medina as a lovely youthful Maria. Both actresses serve up superstar vocal power and truthful acting skill. Ms Sierra’s Anita is the requisite Latin spitfire, but it’s her tirelessly energetic dancing ability that really wows the audience. Both actresses shine in their 11th hour duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.”

Jake David Smith’s Tony is a boyishly handsome young actor with a commanding vocal prowess. He easily wins over the audience with his effortless rendition of “Something’s Coming,” and later with his gorgeous solo, “Maria,” and his soaring duet with Ms Medina, “Tonight.” Jonathan Warner’s Action is, true to his character’s name, constantly in motion and filled with the appropriate anger. Drew Redington’s Riff, the gang leader of the Jets, is perfection in every way. Along with Gary Cooper’s proud, handsome Bernardo, Marco Antonio Tzunux’s shy, but jealous Chino and Marisa Fee’s gutsy Anybodys, every actor has his moment to stand out amidst an ensemble of talented dancers. The entire cast particularly dazzles in the “Tonight Quintet,” in which we hear four different musical perspectives about the happenings to come.  

Three excellent veteran Chicago character actors nicely fill the adult roles in this production. Matt DeCaro beautifully portrays Doc with a frustrated anger toward the world of hatred in which he lives; Bret Tuomi is charmingly humorous, as Glad Hand, but becomes a hard-nosed realist, as Officer Krupke; and Lance Baker brings the venom and exasperation of Lt. Schrank to this production.

Marriott’s production of “West Side Story” is directed by Victor Malana Maog, making his Marriott debut, but is a much-honored and highly lauded theatre artist. He makes this production feel electrified, contrasted with the quieter optimism and frantic desperation of the young lovers, wishing for a world where everyone is accepted for who they are. Musical Director Ryan T. Nelson once again finds the melodic beauty in this time-honored score and has made this musical sing. And Alex Sanchez has challenged his cast with his typical expressive movement, creating true poetry in motion.  

This splendid production in Lincolnshire is filled with excitement, romance and a bit of humor. If only to hear Bernstein’s beautiful score sung by a company of talented vocalists and played by Ms Garwood’s brilliant orchestra, or to see some brilliant, athletic choreography danced as it was meant to be, this production is a must-see. It’s also an opportunity to see some new, up-and-coming, age-appropriate young professionals acting, singing and dancing their hearts out in a truly timeless American classic.