One of my earliest memories of listening to music as a child was playing the West Side Story movie soundtrack over and over on a small, red plastic record player in my basement. Over the course of the next 40 years, I have seen more stage productions than I can count and the incredible score by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim have always held a special place in my heart.
Perhaps that’s why taking my 8-year-old daughter Cassidy (becoming quite the theater expert herself with more than a dozen musicals under her belt this past year) to see the touring production of West Side Story at the National Theatre was so important in the echelon of my theatergoing experiences.
I’m happy to report that the winning production by David Saint, which is based on the highly successful 2009 Broadway revival, offered everything that I love about the musical and more. And I’m thrilled that it seems to have struck the same chord in Cassidy that it did when I was her age.
It’s something of a homecoming for West Side Story at the National Theatre, as it was home to its pre-Broadway run in 1957 and the musical’s revival five years ago. This new revival offers just as much promise as both previous incarnations.
It’s a story that everyone knows: Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of New York at a time when immigrants from Puerto Rico were moving in. Two rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks, fight for the streets and love ensues between Maria, the sister of the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks and Tony, a founder of the Jets who is looking for more from life than what his gang offers.
Jarrad Biron Green makes an ideal Tony. He has a strong presence, a gorgeous voice and conveys just enough innocence to make the tough guy believable as a romantic fool. From his first notes of “Something’s Coming,” you know he has the chops to pull the character off.
Green’s chemistry with Mary Joanna Grisso’s Maria is palpable and it’s easy to believe these two could fall in love so quickly. The pair is exceptional in duets such as “Tonight” and “One Hand One Heart.”
Grisso is lovely and transitions from the fun, flighty “I Feel Pretty” to the emotionally charged “I Have A Love” flawlessly.
As the fiery Anita, Michelle Alves does Rita Moreno proud. Full of spunk, attitude and a voice that won’t quit, Alves brings down the house leading “America” and her dancing is terrific.
As for the leaders of the two gangs, Benjiman Dallas Redding is a little too passive as Riff, and Michael Spencer Smith maybe a bit too angry as Bernardo. Both seemed to be playing caricatures of past stage versions. Both can dance though, and when you’re discussing West Side Story, dancing plays a key role. Choreographer Joey McKneely finds the perfect rhythm from his ensemble and the choreography is fun and at times, breathtaking.
As with the 2009 revival, Saint chooses to continue intermixing Spanish and English in the dialogue and songs, and one doesn’t need to know Spanish to understand the emotions of the scene. The director does make some interesting choices, though—especially with two of the more notable songs.
West Side Story loyalists may be a bit surprised to see the tomboyish Anybodys leading the Act II escapism ballad “Somewhere,” but it makes sense from a character point of view, as she doesn’t fit in with the girls or the Jets, and longs for a fantasy world where she does. Besides, Rosalie Graziano’s hauntingly beautiful version is one of the most touching parts of the musical.
WEST SIDE STORY
Closes June 8, 2014
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $98
Now thru Sundays
For “Officer Krupke,” a humorous song the Jets sing to get over the shock and dark events that have taken place, it’s less a vaudeville mentality and more South Park. The choreography is a little more juvenile and the inflections a bit too much—although the harmonies at the end of the number work well.
The song does let Action’s portrayer Michael Ehlers shine. Throughout the musical, Ehlers commands attention and best portrays the street cred that a Jet member is supposed to have.
Both Cassidy and I loved the costumes and the use of color (especially purple for the Sharks) costume designer David Woolard used to make the production bright.
The notion that love cannot thrive in a world of intolerance is unfortunately still alive today as much as it ever has been and West Side Story remains timeless for that reason. The songs remain as powerful today as they did when I was young, and I look forward to hearing Cassidy play them on her Ipod the way I did with my toy record player.