This is a show of high ambition and equally high achievement
Fans of musical theater in general and West Side Story in particular should thoroughly enjoy the Marriott Theatre revival. The production offers everything this demanding classic requires — intelligent directing, skilled high energy choreography, and a large talented cast, most of them triple threat singers, dancers, and actors, with the emphasis on athletic and expressive dancing.
As anyone entering the Marriott Theatre will already know, West Side Story is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the greatest love-at-first-sight romance in western literature. The team of Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) shifted their modernized version from the original Renaissance Italy setting to the mean streets of New York City in the 1950s.
The Shakespearean storyline is based on the enmity between two aristocratic families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Here, the conflict is updated to the American-born Jets gang versus immigrants from Puerto Rico. Romeo becomes Tony, the Jets leader, and Juliet Capulet is converted into a 15-year-old Puerto Rican named Maria. The two improbably meet and fall madly in love at a dance organized to bring the two enemy gangs together. The story ends in tragedy, but not before the audience is treated to great love songs like “Maria,” “Tonight,” and “Somewhere,” and a whole lot of inspired dancing.
Director Victor Malana Maog and choreographer Alex Sanchez were faced with the problem of crowding large production numbers and abundant scene changes into the space-limited Marriott in-the-round stage. Not to worry. The stage is mostly left bare throughout the evening, giving the performers plenty of room to do their thing with gusto (“Dance at the Gym”), intensity (“The Rumble”), passion (“Somewhere”), and satirical comedy (“America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”).
The dialogue is dated, with terms like “Daddy O” and “Buddy Boy” tossed around like language from Happy Days. And the gangs are not particularly menacing, at least compared to what appears daily in today’s media. But to the credit of the director, there is no attempt to revise the action and characters to reflect today’s lethal gang scene. The staging is secure in its 1950s time warp, minus today’s random shootings and drug wars. There are only three deaths in West Side Story, and that is painful enough.
The gang members and their girl friends are well scrubbed by today’s standards, and Jake David Smith’s Tony looks positively wholesome, though there is a reference to the character as a “pretty boy.” But the Marriott production still successfully sustains the authentic claustrophobic world of young people struggling to survive in a world they did not create and cannot control. Bernstein and Sondheim masterfully employed their score to advance the storyline at a relentless pace (the entire plot covers barely 24 hours of real time). There isn’t a dead spot from opening number to final blackout.
Everyone in the ensemble deserves a shout out for his or her commitment, professionalism, and triple threat talent. First among equals is Lauren Maria Medina, a petite performer who actually looks like the 15-year-old heroine, though she sings with a soaring adult voice. Jake David Smith‘s Tony is upstaged by Maria for most of the narrative but Tony’s final moments on stage are potent indeed. Vanessa Aurora Sierra nails the role of Maria’s best friend, the street wise and lusty Anita. There are also a couple of telling cameo performances by the veteran local actor Matt DeCaro as the humane Doc and Lance Baker as the sinister Lt. Schrank, a police officer who has nothing but contempt for either the Sharks or the Jets.
The triumphant score is conducted with usual brilliance by Patti Garwood, whose nine-member pit orchestra superbly serves up the Bernstein music with all its complex rhythms and emotional colors. The rest of the artistic brain trust is led by Jeffrey D. Kmiec (sets), Amanda Vander Byl (costumes), Jesse Klug (lighting), Michael Daly (sound), and Sally Zack (property designs). Behind the scenes and on stage, this is a show of high ambition and equally high achievement.