Story: Two rival teen gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, have an ongoing feud in a turf war fought in New York City’s blue-collar, West Side neighborhood, circa 1957. Tony, former co-leader of the Jets, has dropped out of the European-American gang and is concentrating on his job at Doc’s drug store.
At a neighborhood dance, he falls immediately in love with Maria, younger sister of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks gang of Puerto Rican immigrants. Tempers flare at the dance, resulting in a duel being set for the next night by Jets’ leader Riff and Bernardo. Tony convinces everyone to let a fist fight between one Jet and one Shark decide the outcome, but Maria persuades her newfound love to stop the brawl all together.
Tony’s intervention, however, causes the fight to escalate, leaving Bernardo and Riff dead and Tony hunted by Bernardo’s friend Chino. Asking Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita to get a message to Tony proves fatal when Anita is attacked by the Jets and angrily tells them instead that Maria is dead, sending Tony into deeper despair.
Highlights: Considered among the most iconic of Broadway musicals, West Side Story has returned to The Muny for a seventh time, and the first since 2005, in exhilarating fashion. With mesmerizing choreography by original director Jerome Robbins, a book by Arthur Laurents that smartly updates Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, a soaring and widely varied musical score by Leonard Bernstein and richly poetic lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story justifiably ranks in the pantheon of American musicals.
Director Gordon Greenberg has dressed up this new rendition just enough to add some additional sparkle to the radiant original creation. Ongoing current friction about immigration only accentuates Laurents’ book, which is more than 50 years old but plays out with continued relevance on The Muny stage.
Other Info: That sprawling Muny expanse is perfect for a choreographer of Chris Bailey’s impressive skills to capitalize upon in this production. Robbins’ athletic and energetic exercises are given dazzling interpretation by Greenberg’s cast, from the signature opening piece, the finger-snapping Prologue, through numbers that feature the two gangs pantomiming their way through the stylized street violence.
The action is played out on Robert Mark Morgan’s smartly realized, gritty set that incorporates a towering fence offset by a neon sign indicating Doc’s drug store and underneath a highway where the fatal fight transpires. There’s also a walkway that doubles effectively for the musical’s version of the famous balcony scene. Nathan Scheuer’s projections augment the look of a tenement environment, enhanced with Rob Denton’s precise lighting effects.
The sounds of the city, including wailing police car sirens, emanate from Jason Krueger’s sound design. Andrea Lauer’s costumes, complete with guys in sports jackets and white socks and girls in flowing dresses, put the setting squarely in the 1950s, while James Moore’s musical direction brings out the lush, exotic aspects of Bernstein’s brilliant score.
Greenberg utilizes the talents of several Broadway veterans, including Natalie Cortez, who played Anita in the 2008 revival, reprising her role here in sassy, dynamic style. Manuel Herrera, who understudied the role of Bernardo on Broadway, is powerfully convincing in that role here, while Ali Ewoldt, who played Maria in a recent national Broadway tour, displays a beautiful voice and an affecting spirit as the tragic heroine.
Kyle Dean Massey, an alumnus of Missouri State University, brings a smooth tenor and convincing acting to his performance as Tony, highlighted by his rendition of the plaintive ballad, Maria. Muny favorite Curtis Holbrook returns as Tony’s misguided best friend, Riff. Broadway veteran Jon Rua portrays Chino and Kaitlin Mesh is the feisty tomboy and Jets wannabe Anybodys.
The abundant cast includes local favorites Gary Glasgow as the nerdy dance impresario Gladhand, Rich Pisarkiewicz as slow-witted Officer Krupke, Ken Page as the kindly proprietor Doc and Michael James Reed as the prejudiced, bullying powerbroker, Lt. Schrank.
Bernstein’s score overflows with memorable tunes, all augmented by a young Sondheim’s rich and resonant lyrics. America is performed in rousing, rollicking style by Cortez and her coterie of Puerto Rican ladies. Ewoldt demonstrates her lovely voice in the upbeat I Feel Pretty number and splendidly complements Massey on Tony and Maria’s duet, Tonight. The entire ensemble shines on the affecting dream sequence ballad, Somewhere, sung hauntingly on the catwalk by soloist Michaela Wolz.
West Side Story remains one of the greatest of all American musicals and sends The Muny’s 2013 season off in grand fashion with this vital, affecting rendition.
Musical: West Side Story
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through August 11
Tickets: Free to $80; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry