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A CurtainUp DC Review
West Side Story
"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." — Composer Leonard Bernstein on the subject of West Side Story.
west side story
Natascia Diaz (Photo: Christopher Mueller)
The impact of the musical West Side Story remains as strong as ever. Based on Shakespeare's beautiful play about doomed love, Romeo and Juliet, the issues of prejudice, immigration, gang violence and the fear of those who are different from us are, sadly, with us still. Maybe even more so than when this musical burst on the scene in 1957. (The first performances, prior to Broadway, were at Washington's National Theatre, then a tryout house for shows headed for the Great White Way.)

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.

West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Choreography by Parker Esse, based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins
Music Direction by Jon Kalbfleisch
Scenic Design by Misha Kachman
Costume Design by Frank Labovitz
Lighting Design by Jason Lyons
Sound Design by Lane Elms

Cast: Jasmine Alexis (Teresita); Jacob Beasley (Gee-Tar); Kurt Boehm (Diesel/Fight Captain); Max Clayton (Riff); Austin Colby (Tony); Jennifer Cordiner (Graziella); Natascia Diaz (Anita); Sean Ewing (Bernardo); Ryan Fitzgerald (Action); Michael Graceffa (Indio); MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria); Colleen Hayes (Velma); Jamie Howes (Minnie); Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab); Ilda Mason (Francisca); Katie Mariko Murray (Rosalia); Tony Neidenbach (Big Deal/Assistant Choreographer/Dance Captain); Zachary Norton (Anxious); DJ Petrosino (Chino); Olivia Ashley Reed (Consuelo); Eric Rivas (Luis); Maria Rizzo (Anybodys); Ryan Sellers (Pepe); Bobby Smith (Doc/Glad Hand); Cami Spring (Clarice); Russell Sunday (Officer Krupke); Joseph Tudor (Baby John); Shawna Walker (Pauline); J. Morgan White (Snowboy); John Leslie Wolfe (Lieutenant Schrank).
Musicians: Jon Kalbfleisch (Conductor); William Yanesh (Piano/Associate Conductor); Al Regni, Scott Van Domelen, Ben bokor, Annie Ament (Reeds); Chris Walker, Brent Madsen, Davy DeArmond (Trumpets); Scott Ninmer, Adam McColley (Trombones); Paul Keesling (Drums); Lee Hinkle (Percussion); Max Murray (Bass); Jeff Thurston, Harriet Vorona, Cathy Amoury (Violins); Aron Rider (Cello).
Run time: 2 1/2 hours, one 15-minute intermission
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Shirlington, Va; 703-820-9771
December 8, 2015 to January 31, 2016. Tickets start at $40.
Review by Susan Davidson based on December 18, 2015 performance.
Musical Numbers
Act One
    Jet Song
    Something's Coming
    Dance at the Gym
    Balcony Scene
    One Hand, One Heart
Act Two
    I Feel Pretty
    Gee, Officer Krupke
    A Boy Like That/I Have A Love
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