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A CurtainUp DC Review
West Side Story
While Romeo and Juliet came from families who opposed one another, in West Side Story, the rivalry is between gangs -- the Jets, made up of American street kids and the Sharks, recent immigrants to New York from Puerto Rico. Their ferocious turf battles and the complications of a romance by a boy and girl from opposite cultures are played out in colorful, exciting theater.
The pedigree, if you can call it that, of the young talent who collaborated on West Side Story is unmatched before or since. Leonard Bernstein wrote the music; Stephen Sondheim, the lyrics; Arthur Laurents, the book and Jerome Robbins, did the choreography. Their influence lives on. They were young men in 1957 when the show came to life but their brilliance — individually and collectively — was immediately recognized by dazzled audiences.
That was then. Now, in an outrageously ambitious production, Washington's Signature Theatre has created a true-to-the-original show with a tricky change. The cast remains huge, the orchestra remains huge but what has been down-scaled is the playing area. Signature's Max theatre has 276 seats, arranged for this production on three sides of the stage, a relatively small area given the number of performers who appear on stage at the same time.
Director Matthew Gardiner must have moved his characters around like a drill sergeant while choreographer Parker Esse adapted Jerome Robbins's original choreography for a small stage. They both have succeeded beyond anyone's imagination. Thrilling would not be too strong a word to describe this ensemble show.
The downsized set and stage floor increases the intensity of the performance for the dancers and for the audience who are practically in their faces. By the end of the second act, the audience feels as though they know each of these characters personally. Misha Kachman's brilliant set surrounds the stage with metal runways on the balcony level that suggest the harsh metal exteriors and fire escapes of New York City tenements. The balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, sorry, I mean Tony and Maria is particularly effective in this environment.
Frank Labovitz's costumes are true to the 1950's not an era known for its out-there style. However, for the school dance, Labovitz has dressed the Puerto Rican girls in colorful dresses underpinned by many many layers of flashy petticoats. No wonder these girls feel pretty. Lighting Designer Jason Lyons has made some puzzling choices. Lighting can make a scene, such as the triangular shafts of light that come down from the flies, or break it when the Jets's eyes seem hollow in darkness. Jon Kalbfleish's music direction of a 17-piece orchestra, suspended above the stage, is as faultless as ever.
Either Director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Parker Esse were lucky in their casting or they have trained their male dancers to perfection. From the first clicking of fingers that open the show to the dream ballet of the second act, the dancers electrify the stage. Totally in unison, they move rapidly and forcefully in a mesmerizing-to-watch ensemble effort. In the dance attended by both gangs some of the women, all of whom dance strongly, look harsh as though they have been around the block more than a few times.
Natascia Diaz as Anita stands out above all the other actors. Her Latina sensibilities— how she moves her hands, puts her head to one side, or lands a perfectly-timed joke — flourish in this part. Plus, when she faces grief, her sorrow is heartfelt.
Austin Colby's Tony looks preppy, an incongruous image even though he is no longer a member of a gang. His lovely singing voice lands all the lyrics perfectly but he seems a bit hesitant with dialogue. That problem is more extreme with MaryJoanna Grisso's Maria. She sings well and enunciates lyrics clearly but her spoken dialogue is unintelligible. Surprisingly these are small quibbles because the production is so strong and so enjoyable regardless of these two performances.
Several new musicals have graced Washington's stages lately causing theatergoers to scratch their heads as they wonder why anyone would want to produce these mediocrities. With an excellent Kiss Me Kate at the Shakespeare Theatre's Harman Center and now an exciting West Side Story at Signature, we are reminded that musicals can indeed be pure pleasure.