A satisfying and superbly-paced production
Never in recent memory has the late Stephen Sondheim classic “Something’s Coming” had more relevance than Jake David Smith’s lofty rendition at the opening of “West Side Story” at Marriott Theatre Wednesday night. Originally scheduled for Marriott’s 2019-2020 season, the show has been postponed twice and moved around in the venue’s future lineup at least once during the pandemic. In the meantime, Sondheim’s passing shook the theatre community just days before Steven Spielberg’s new film version—which received multiple Oscar nods this week—debuted in an epic and risky theatrical-only release last fall. Lots of Jets and Sharks rumblings these past few months.
Smith is a remarkable talent, bringing a strong, but youthful innocence to the role of Tony in his first appearance at Marriott. Those qualities serve him well throughout and particularly as things spiral out of control and the darker, tragic elements of the story unfold. You really believe the strapping forever-Jet is both a fighter and a lover, capable of the deep, emotional feelings for Maria, played beautifully by Lauren Maria Medina, another newcomer to the Marriott stage.
Medina finds a lighter-than-air quality within Maria, curious and exuberant at first, then flipping the switch effectively to a young woman caught up in the wonder of first love and oblivious to the inherent risks involved. And in this Victor Malana Maog-directed production that first kiss at the dance in the gym is so intense that I expected Maria’s brother Bernardo, deftly played by Gary Cooper, to go rogue and knock Tony’s block off then and there. This couple is matched well as vocalists and are great dance partners as evidenced in the enhanced dream sequence which featured an exquisite performance of “Somewhere” by Sophia Marie Guerrero.
Vanessa Aurora Sierra’s Anita is sassy and vulnerable. From leading the Shark women in “America,” one of many terrific dance numbers by choreographer Alex Sanchez, to the poignant and powerful duet “A Boy Like That” with Medina, Sierra’s luminous vocal range is on full display. It’s Anita’s assault by the Jets at Doc’s, however, that turns the dramatic tables of this show and Sierra’s painful and emotional response is a stunning moment, aided by the brilliant presence of Chicago stage veteran Matt DeCaro as Doc and the earlier ethnic prodding by Lance Baker as the urban-hardened Lt. Shrank.
With a youthful and spirited company of no less than 18 new faces in a cast of 28, this is a straight-up version of the classic. The familiar storyline, that pits the Jets, led by Riff (the multi-talented Drew Redington) and the Sharks, led by Cooper’s Bernardo, to a turf fight with tragic consequences, will always have some noisy speed bumps in the Arthur Laurents book. Those matters aside, as a lens into the era’s ethnic divide and stereotypical attitudes, “West Side Story” remains an opportunity for a new generation of artists to mine this groundbreaking masterpiece. Maog, Sanchez and music director Ryan T. Nelson meet the challenge of converting the typically grand style and scope of the show at larger venues into the Marriott Theatre’s in-the-round configuration; a daunting task to be sure. The advantage, of course, is bringing the iconic dance sequences—like “Cool,” “America,” “Tonight’” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”— along with the thrilling stylized fight scenes closer to the audience. That close-in proximity, at times, can work against some of the more intimate moments when a critical mass of the company members are on stage together.
Conductor Patti Garwood effortlessly delivers the complex Leonard Bernstein score with precision. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s urban street design, punctuated by Jesse Klug’s evocative lighting, is framed by steel piping, iron fence and a skyscape of windows above that makes you think of both a gritty playground and street gangs in cages trying to fight their way out. The darker, more brooding stage elements allow Amanda Vander Byl’s costumes to splash and swing on stage and in every high-energy dance number making “West Side Story” at Marriott Theatre a satisfying and superbly-paced production.