Wednesday, May 9, 2012

theatre review, WEST SIDE STORY, National Tour, NJPAC, May 6

If you were to make a list of quintessential American musicals, West Side Story would have to be toward the top of that list.  With the perfect combination of drama, music and dance and containing some of the most well known theatre songs, West Side Story is a true classic with a message that still rings true sixty years after it first premiered. 

Written by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics from Stephen Sondheim and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is a modern updating of Romeo and Juliet.  Set in 1950's New York City but instead of two feuding families we now have two gangs, one white and one Puerto Rican fighting for their home turf and the star crossed lovers caught in the middle. 

Evy Ortiz and Ross Lekites
There isn't one bad song in the score of this show.  With ballads like "Somewhere" and "Something's Coming," comical numbers like "I Feel Pretty" and "Officer Krumpke" combined with the heavy dance sequences "Cool" and "America" along with the lovely duets "A Boy Like That" and "Tonight," these songs are classics in the truest sense of the word.  Each song adds to the character development and plot and even the dream ballet of "Somewhere" is perfectly placed at the height of the tension and contributes some beauty into the ugliness we've just experienced.  Bernstein and Sondheim's music and lyrics so perfectly compliment each other with each at the top of their game.

The national tour of the show just ended a week long engagement at NJPAC in Newark before moving to Toronto for a month long run.  Based on the recent Broadway revival directed by Laurents, this production features a recreation of Robbins' original choreography by Joey McKneely and direction from David Saint.   When the recent Broadway revival premiered there was much talk of how many of the scenes and songs for the Puerto Rican characters were now in Spanish.   Now this touring production is a slightly different version then when the Broadway revival first premiered as some of the Spanish has been reverted back to English much as it was slightly scaled back during the almost two year long Broadway revival run.  I guess they thought there was too much Spanish for those viewers who weren't completely familiar with the show.  I think there is now a happy mix of the two languages that provide the correct ethnic felling but still keeping some of the most well known and most important lyrics in English. 
Michelle Aravena and Evy Ortiz
The cast for this tour is top notch. Ross Lekites as Tony has a clear and strong voice that serves his soaring ballads perfectly.  His "Maria" was stunning.  Evy Ortiz as Maria has the young innocent looks required but she correctly shows the yearning underneath.  She also has a lovely voice that is put to great use during "Somewhere."  The character of Anita is always the highlight of this show, and Michelle Aravena is smashing in the part.  She not only is a great dancer, with her "America" a major highlight of this production but her acting is so natural and raw and her voice easily wraps around the Spanish lyrics.  Her duet of "A Boy Like That" with Ortiz was perfect. 

In the supporting parts, German Santiago as Bernardo and Drew Foster as Riff are both effective in delivering the raw energy required for the leaders of the two rival gangs.  They are both gifted dancers who, along with the entire ensemble, make the many dance numbers in the show extremely energetic.  In fact, McKneely must have spent many hours in drilling his dancers as they are so in sync and the opening number and the Dance at the Gym sequence are red hot.  Bernstein's music and Robbins' choreography so elegantly portray the emotion and complexity of  the characters and the dancers in this show couldn't be better.   Alexandra Frohlinger brought a nice uniqueness to Anybody's,  the girl who wants to be a member of the Jets.   It's just too bad her voice isn't stronger since she is given the opening part of "Somewhere" to sing.

James Youmans provided the scenic design as he did for the recent Broadway revival.  His designs seamlessly and effectively portray the many locations in 1957 Manhattan. I really liked how effective the forced perspective on the simple drops and flats was in portraying various places especially the underside of the freeway during the rumple scene.  Lighting by Howell Bickley was nicely done and costumes by David C. Woolard provided a brilliant color palate.  Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier was extremely effective especially considering the large space of the NJPAC Prudential Hall.  All four of these men recreated their designs from the recent Broadway revival.

It's been awhile since I saw a production of West Side Story and seeing a top notch production like this reminds me again how brilliant of a show this is.  Sure, maybe our young lovers fall in love a little too quickly and when one character dies their sibling doesn't seem to mourn them for too long.  But those slightly unrealistic moments don't detract much at all from the intelligent and thought provoking simple message of acceptance and tolerance at the core of Arthur Laurent's book.  I don't know what else I can say about the score except that it has to be one of the most entirely effective and significant scores in musical theatre history.  It is amazing that this show is sixty years old and still has a message that is timely.  If this tour comes to your town or if a production of West Side Story pops up close by you, don't miss a chance to see a performance. 

Official Show Site

A montage of scenes from this production:

Karen Olivo and the Broadway revival cast perform "America" on the Dave Letterman Show:

The Broadway revival cast perform "The Dance at the Gym" on the Tony Awards:

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