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Marriott’s West Side Story does everything right

I can’t think of an American musical with a better pedigree than West Side Story, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Yes, the show is pretty great. But it IS almost 65 years old. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a fresh take on this material (even in a year when Steven Spielberg has released his own big-budget movie revival). Yet that is what the folks at Marriott Theatre have done. In this revival they have taken an old warhorse and made it gambol and sing and kick around the pasture like a high-spirited colt.

Every element of the production (directed by Victor Malana Maog and choreographed by Alex Sanchez) works perfectly—the acting, the dancing, the set design, the scene changes. Everything flows with a precision, grace, and power that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat, even audience members like me who have seen this show many times, and went into the theater thinking I knew it too well to be surprised. How wrong I was.

The ensemble is packed with actors who totally embody the roles they play. In less sensitive times, most of the Puerto Rican gang members in the show have been played by non-Latinx actors. In Robert Wise’s 1961 film, Maria was played by a white actress of Russian descent (born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, better known as Natalie Wood). This production deftly avoids these past errors, presenting us with a fine, diverse cast, packed with Latinx performers.

Jake David Smith, playing Tony, exudes a very winning, hopeful naivete about the world. It is not hard to see why his Tony captures Maria’s heart so quickly. Lauren Maria Medina’s Maria is the perfect foil to Smith’s Tony. Together they are utterly charming, and the course of their true love utterly devastating. The same is true of the actors in the important roles of Riff, Bernardo, and Anita (Drew Redington, Gary Cooper, and Vanessa Aurora Sierra, respectively). In point of fact, I have never seen a production of West Side Story with as many utterly convincing performances as are present here. Again and again, these performers remind us that the Jets and Sharks are still just adolescents, lost in a world their still-developing brains are not ready for, and making the impulsive mistakes all adolescents make—with tragic results. I have not seen the Spielberg movie version of West Side Story yet, but I can’t help wondering if the director and cast were not reacting to the movie by giving us what a movie just cannot; intense, real, heartfelt live performances that shake an audience to its roots.

When so many things go right, as happens here, the analytical part of my brain shuts down. I can see part of what is working; for example, the pace of the show is positively thrilling, flowing gracefully from scene to scene, creating a very cinematic effect in Marriott’s in-the-round performance space. But I could not tell, on a single viewing, the totality of what made me want to linger in the theater wishing the production was a little longer.

Every inspired moment Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents packed into the show is realized on the Marriott Theatre stage. And more. Whatever the opposite of turning in your grave is, Robbins, Bernstein, Sondheim, and Laurents are doing it right now.