Possibly the greatest musical ever created, West Side Story – a modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set on the mean streets of New York during the turbulent fifties – is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood until Sunday January 2, 2011.
An exceptional musical, with a gifted young cast and experienced orchestra, fantastic staging and – of course – incredible choreography, this production is handsomely presented and full of vitality, grace and passion.
Boasting soaring music by Leonard Bernstein, tender lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, gripping story and book by Arthur Laurents, and brilliant and ground-breaking choreography by Jerome Robbins, here is a case where the confluence of exceptional talents created magic; West Side Story is “lightning in a bottle.”
The current production at the Pantages Theatre is an electrifying and faithful re-staging of Arthur Laurents’ original Broadway production, with direction by David Saint, using the original stunning choreography by Jerome Robbins, here reproduced by Joey McKneely and his talented cast.
Who else but Robbins could choreograph tough street gangs who dance to express their angst, frustration and ferocious rivalry? When have you ever seen the expression of repressed anger through a pirouette? The iconic song “Cool” distills this idea and succinctly presents it with such heat, passion and explosion of pent-up energy, it virtually leaps off the stage. And when the orchestra let loose with some of those memorable melodies – especially the vibrant brass section – it is thrilling to experience live.
The young cast is exceptionally good in this bi-lingual production. (Remarkably, the Puerto Ricans speak amongst themselves in Spanish and Lin-Manuel Miranda, of In The Heights fame, was hired to re-work and infuse the bi-racial story with actual Spanish into the text and music.) But it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak Spanish – you can still understand exactly what’s going on during these scenes.
Portraying the powerful love story is Tony (Kyle Harris gives a strong performance) and a delightfully talented Maria (Ali Ewoldt) who brings a youthful innocence and sweetness to her performance, along with a pure and soaring voice that is more than up to the challenges of this role. Alicia Charles gives a gutsy depth to her performance as the sassy Anita, Maria’s best friend and more-or-less her sister-in-law. German Santiago exudes arrogance and sex-appeal and is impressive as Puerto-Rican gang leader Bernardo, who rules ‘The Sharks’. Alexander Frohlinger is a revelation as Anybodys, the kicked-around tomboy who yearns to be part of the all-guy gang, ‘The Jets’. Frohlinger shines when given the magical song “Somewhere”* and she gives an exquisite rendition during the gorgeous, dream-ballet sequence in Act 2 that makes good use of vibrantly back-lit silhouette and elegant staging. During this utopian scene, the gangs unite in harmony.
The gorgeous costumes are designed by David C. Woolard – not just for the sneaker-and jeans-clad gangs but the outfits they all wear to the school dance, but also the outfits that help us delineate between the two gangs. Additionally, these kids have to execute some pretty challenging dance moves while wearing these costumes! Then there’s the fantastic industrial and minimal sets by scenic designer James Youman that rate a mention. Not only does Youman effectively conjure up the old tenement housing of New York, with its fire escapes and shabby brickwork, but also huge set pieces glide on and off stage with seemingly little effort. A show-stopper is the large cloth or set piece that flies in upstage when the two gangs congregate under the freeway for their rumble, just before the close of Act 1. It feels exactly like being in the movie theater that day when you saw Star Wars for the first time and during the opening moments that massive spaceship flies overhead for the longest time. When that freeway set piece flies in upstage, and the chain link fence flies in downstage, your jaw drops. It’s impressive stuff.
It’s important to note that when this musical was created during the fifties, only Jerome Robbins was known. Sondheim was a newcomer, as was Bernstein (relatively speaking). Laurents’ Broadway career was patchy.
Backstory from Wikipedia:
In 1949, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. He proposed that the plot focus on the conflict between an Italian American Roman Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, during the Easter-Passover season. The girl has survived the Holocaust and emigrated from Israel; the conflict was to be centered around anti-Semitism of the Catholic “Jets” towards the Jewish “Emeralds” (a name that made its way into the script as a reference).
Eager to write his first musical, Laurents immediately agreed. Bernstein wanted to present the material in operatic form, but Robbins and Laurents resisted the suggestion. They described the project as “lyric theatre,” and Laurents wrote a first draft he called East Side Story. Only after he completed it did the group realize it was little more than a musicalization of themes that had already been covered in plays like Abie’s Irish Rose. When he opted to drop out, the three men went their separate ways, and the piece was shelved for almost five years. When the project resumed, Robbins went on to win a Tony award for his choreography in 1957. Along with Robert Wise, Robbins co-directed the movie version, which won a staggering ten of its eleven nominations, including the Oscar for Best Picture in 1961.
This current staging of West Side Story – being the national touring company of the new Broadway production – has everything you could want from a night of musical theater. West Side Story is a legendary classic for good reason. Do not miss this show!
*BTW – It was the character of Consuelo (in the role originated and performed by Reri Grist) who sang the beautiful ballad “Somewhere” in the original 1957 stage production. Go here to hear her sing this exquisite song.
WEST SIDE STORY
6233 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90028-5310
Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 1pm & 6:30pm
Matinees at 2pm on Saturdays and some selected days throughout the holidays, including selected Thursdays and Fridays.
$25 – $90.00
go here or all 800-982-ARTS (2787)
Review by Pauline Adamek