BWW Reviews: An Energetic WEST SIDE STORY Returns to the National Theatre
There's a profound sense of awe upon entering the National Theatre to see the current touring production of West Side Story. This is, after all, the same theater where the musical had its world premiere in 1957 and pre-Broadway engagement in 2008. West Side Story returned to the storied National Theatre on Tuesday night with an energetic revival that contains all the elements of what made this show a beloved classic.
Inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story tells the story of star-crossed lovers Tony (Jarrad Biron Green) and Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso). After meeting at a dance they fall in love only to have their relationship challenged by the ethnic gang warfare of their upper west side Manhattan neighborhood. In this version of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets have been transformed in the Polish-American street gang the Jets and their Puerto Rican counterparts, the Sharks.
Audiences familiar with previous incarnations of West Side Story or its 1961 Academy Award winning film version will find much to love with this revival. Musical Director J. Michael Duff excels in bringing Leonard Bernstein's glorious score to life and Joey McKneely has done a phenomenal job reproducing Jerome Robbins' original balletic choreography which is fantastically danced by this gifted cast. Nevertheless, this West Side Story also features several creative changes, the most publicized of which is the inclusion of Spanish into the show's libretto and lyrics.
West Side Story's Librettist Arthur Laurents, who also directed the 2009 Broadway revival of which this production is based upon, believed that incorporating Spanish into the show would add to its authenticity. He was right in that the inclusion of Spanish richly enhances several moments featuring the Sharks; consequently, it also leads to some confusing moments as well. The problems arise from scenes in which both Spanish and English are spoken and used interchangeably. This causes the audience to struggle in understanding the action on-stage. Scenes are much clearer when only one language is used allowing the audience to better grasp the emotional intent of the character and story.
Another major change was the decision by Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Director David Saint, who also served as Associate Director of the aforementioned Broadway revival, to emphasize the bigotry and intolerance which encompass West Side Story's world. The production is much grittier then what audiences have seen in the past.
These Jets are not a slick 1950's gang. They're juvenile delinquents who have fallen through society's safety-net. That's made quite clear in the "Jet Song" which they perform covered with bruises, cuts and black eyes from previous street scraps. I applaud the creative team for this decision; it effectively shows the abrasiveness of the world in which the Jets and Sharks operate.
Green and Grisso are fantastic as the show's ill-fated lovers. Together they not only sing beautifully, they also have a wonderful chemistry together which makes their scenes soar. Both look and act very youthful which is essential for West Side Story. Green is terrific in how he puts on full display the awkwardness of a youth having just met the girl of his dreams. Grisso looks and sounds angelic as Maria. Her transformation from a young girl at the dance to a woman in the final "Neighborhood" scene is very well-acted.
As Anita, Michelle Alves' interpretation of "America," one of musical theater's greatest numbers, puts on full display why West Side Story is a classic. Her triple threat performance generates laughs with Sondheim's witty lyrics, heat with Robbins' choreography and gives this production a jolt of energy when matched with Bernstein's score. It's the perfect example of how book, music, lyrics and choreography all combine to tell a story.
Benjiman Dallas Redding and Michael Spencer Smith give intense performances as the rival gang leaders of the Jets and Sharks, Riff and Bernado. Smith in particular gives Bernado a smooth quality while underneath harboring a festering resentment toward society. F. Tyler Burnet, Mark Fishback and Skip Pipo all give satisfying performances as Officer Krupke, Doc and Lt. Shrank - the so-called "adults" in West Side Story. Pipo gives the nastiest performance of Shrank I've ever seen enhancing the realism strived for by this production.
David Saint is faithful in recreating Laurent's direction. Only during "Gee, Officer Krupke" did the production's quest for authenticity become problematic. Instead of projecting and articulating Sondheim's lyrics, the cast seemed more concerned with their individual character's vulgar gestures. Saint would be advised to put the focus back on the song.
Adding to the energy and grittiness of this production is David C. Woolard's costumes. His vivid use of color with each gang's outfits makes scenes like the "Dance at the Gym" and "The Rumble" pop! James Youmans' sets have been reduced to painted backgrounds and stationary set pieces. It's not the most original set design, but then again West Side Story has never been a show where audiences come to see the set. Audiences can rest assured that Doc's Drugstore, the dress shop and Maria's balcony will be just as they remember it.
There were several technical problems with Tuesday's performance which I'll attribute to this being the tour's first performance in the National Theatre. Howell Binkley's lighting design blinded the audience twice during "Somewhere" and Peter McBoyle's sound design was uneven causing microphones to go in and out. I'm confident these issues will be fixed as West Side Story settles in for its week-long run.
In launching a new tour the production team of West Side Story could have easily settled for a carbon-copy revival of the original Broadway production. After all, why mess with what many consider a masterpiece? But West Side Story has never been about playing it safe, and that was certainly the case when it opened at the National Theatre 57 years ago. This West Side Story contains some changes, but at heart is still the story of Tony and Maria. First timers and seasoned West Side Story veterans will still find one of Broadway's greatest love stories in a production that is energetic and fresh.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
West Side Story plays at the National Theatre - 1321 Pennsylvania Ave, NW in Washington, DC - through June 8th. For tickets, visit the box office, purchase them by phone (1-800-514-3849) or online.
West Side Story does feature a ticket lottery for all performances. If selected, patrons can purchase tickets for $25 each, cash only. For more information on the West Side Story ticket lottery please click here.
Photo: MaryJoanna Grisso as Maria and Jarrad Biron Green as Tony in West Side Story at the National Theatre. Credit: Amy Boyle.