The final production of Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2015-2016 season is composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and book writer Arthur Laurents’ classic “West Side Story” in a new production that makes the second act as powerful as it always should have been. Groundbreaking when it was first produced in 1957, this musical flexes some serious muscle while the sparks fly romantically between Maria and Tony and racially with the gangs the Sharks and the Jets.
We’ve known the story, literally for hundreds of years, from William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Love may triumph, and while tragedy doesn’t always befall young lovers, the lessons learned from Maria and Tony change the lives of everyone around them. This production, however, has edge and a level of energy that is not in the 1961 film and is not like any other stage production I’ve seen.
We first meet the Jets after a bit of a prologue where the two gangs mix it up in twos and threes and we are treated to the joie de vivre of teen boys as they strut and flex, as the boys they are vie with the new muscles, and the other changes that are happening, to make them the men they will become. Riff (Mikey Winslow) leads his crew Action (Cody Williams), A-Rab (Jack Sippel), Baby John (Parker Slaybaugh), Snow Boy (Brendon Stimson), Big Deal (Michael Bullard), Diesel (John Michael Fiumara), and Gee-Tar (Spencer Clark) through what it means to be a Jet. Tomboy Anybody’s (Maria Briggs) is always trying to get in to where things are happening, but the boys keep her out. We hear a lot about Tony (Matt Doyle), who’s a founder of the Jets, but he’s 18, so he’s moved on from the streets. Or has he? When Riff goes to Doc’s Drugstore, where Tony works, we see why Tony’s no longer part of the Jets … he has a cooler head and a sense of where his life can go. He’s seen the fruits of his labor and he’s got a vision, and this makes our knowledge of what’s to come even more poignant.
Bernardo (German Alexander) is a teen just like Riff, but already he’s the patriarch of his clan. His charm, his machismo, and his quick decisiveness have made him the leader of the Sharks. He’s as quick with his hands as his wits and Anita (Natalie Cortez) is his perfect match. Both have verve and personality that spills over out of the ordinary and these two characters are 40-year olds in the bodies of teens–they know exactly who they are and they will tell you all about it. When they mix it up with one another, you know it only fuels their passion. ‘Nardo’s boys Chino (Dean Andre De Luna), Pepe (Danny Bevins), Indio (Damian Chambers), Luis (Adam Rogers), Anxious (Jordan Isadore), Nibbles (James Allen Washington), and Juano (Phil Colgan) take their lead from him and the swirling maelstrom of energy and hormones is intoxication. Anita (Natalie Cortez) has taken Bernardo’s sister Maria (Belinda Allyn) under her wing to sew in the Bridal Shop where she works, and Anita is doing her best to teach Maria about life. Just like a shark in the ocean, Anita believes in swimming forward, always forward, for progress and change, and when she sings “America,” you feel it through and through.
Moments that are my favorites in this production–the dance scene in the gym sets the tone with ‘Nardo and Anita versus Riff and his girl Graziella (Tenealle Farragher), and each has their own sizzle. The dancing is superb, and what one would expect from director Mark S. Hoebee, whose earlier career was in dance, including work with Jerome Robbins, and choreographer Alex Sanchez, who has reproduced Robbins’ original choreography. The staging of Maria and Tony’s meeting is absolutely stunning and is the perfect representation of how the world falls away when you see the One. There is such chemistry between the Maria and Tony that the excruciating limerance brought tears to my eyes, as did the penultimate scene, where they meet as they parted–as suddenly and as passionately.
The second act of this production is staged differently than most of us have ever seen with the ballet/fantasy scene including a nightmare “chicken fight” where Bernardo, Riff, and Tony re-enact the fatal battle, even as Maria and Tony consummate their love. Life is a mélange of emotion just like this, and the creation of community from tragedy will always be the larger lesson. Outside of fantasy, though, we all have feet of clay. When the Jets are gathered at Doc’s Drugstore, the hatred of “other” and the flood of emotions lead the Jets to manhandle Anita with such cruelty that it is very uncomfortable to watch–as cruelty should be. Fortunately Doc (Jay Russell) comes upstairs in time to prevent continuation of tragedy, permitting Anita to escape. This attempted-rape scene keeps things brutally real.
Allyn’s voice soars effortlessly, true and clear as love itself, in Maria’s songs and Doyle’s Tony is so smitten for this kitten that their blend is sublime. Tears stayed in my eyes whenever they were together, as they were so much in love. Cortez’s Anita is four-dimensional and her sheer physicality is every-woman in its verve. Her passion and joy show in everything Anita does. Alexander’s Bernardo is already the man that he would have become–passionate, family-oriented and caring–and how many other young men’s lives are cut short by this kind of tragedy before they can fully come in to their power? When the cast comes together in the Dream Sequence and again in the Finale, it’s a call to action to build a better world.
“West Side Story” runs through June 26, and it’s HOT! Make sure you visit www.papermill.org
for tickets, as this is nearly sold OUT!