BWW Review: After Sixty Years, Guthrie's WEST SIDE STORY Still Sparks Cultural Controversy

Photo Credit: Guthrie Theater of Pinero's Maria and Koeck's Tony
Photo Credit: Guthrie Theater, Pinero and Koeck

On stage the past weekend, Minneapolis's Guthrie Theater opened a production of of the iconic musical West Side Story in the Wurtlele Thrust Stage. The following Tuesday, June 26, the United States Supreme Court upheld the country's travel ban for seven countries, mainly located in the Middle East, on strict rules governing the immigrants' admittance to the U.S. On Thursday, another shooting happened near Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people when a gunman opened fire through a glass door at a small newspaper office. In a powerful scene during the opening of West Side Story, the character of Doc addresses one of the two rival gangs named the Jets when they host a council meeting in his drug store: "Why do you live like there's a war on? Why do you kill?"

If any two contemporary events set the stage for the 60 year old multi-award winning West Side Story, the week's events embody a significant crux of the musical's context. In 1957, when the show first ran on Broadway, or after the 1961 film won ten 0scars, little did the composers, producers, and writers comprehend how relevant their musical would play decades later.

The book, written by Arthur Laurents accompanied by Leonard Bernstein's music and the debut of lyricist Stephen Sondheim relate a tale that resonates far beyond what these men could foresee. West Side Story transformed modern theater the last half of the 20th century with its gritty themes and operatic score. Alongside Jerome Robbins's balletic choreography which still challenges performers and delights audiences in the 21st century while striking controversy within a 2018 society struggling to come to terms with an increasingly diverse culture.

Director Joseph Haj recreates a West Side Story unfolding to the rhythms of the Broadway play instead of the more familiar Oscar winning film. Against Christopher Acebo's minimal set design, numerous debuting actors accept the lofty heights in performance this musical requires--from the exacting lyrics and melodies to the energizing dance movements choreographed at the Guthrie by Maija Garcia. In the musical, two warring gangs, the Sharks, immigrants from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, those born in America, fight for New York street turf. When a boy from the Jets falls in love with a girl from the Sharks, a retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet underscores the volatile gang and police conflicts.

Musical Director and Conductor Mark Hartman's orchestra, barely visible behind the scenery, immerses the audience in this melodious score which honors the great traditions of elite Broadway musicals and resounds with these now classical songs, including "Maria" and "Tonight." Whether the audience might be familiar with the story or not, Bernstein's music and Sondheim's lyrics mesmerize the audience.

Debuting actors and romantic leads, Marc Koeck (Tony) and Mia Pinero (Maria) discover a warm chemistry in their star crossed young love reminiscent of Romeo and his Juliet. Pinero especially radiates the excitement and innocence of a teenager discovering her new home, America's New York, for the first time and the giddy feeling of love through her glorious voice.

Equally stunning, were Anita and Bernado, Maria's friend and the leader of the Sharks. On Tuesday night, an arresting and dazzling Kristin Yancy (understudy to Ana Isabelle) embodies the sensuous Anita. Together with Pinero, the combo capture sisterhood love, especially in the duet "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love."

To round out the cast, Marco Antonio Santiago demonstrates an accomplished and regal Bernado, circumspect of other Puerto Ricans embracing American life. As head of the Jets, Darius Jordan Lee (Riff) fights against Bernardo, especially when Tony and Maria are discovered. The large, talented cast makes this play come to the stage larger than life, each performer contributing to the theatrical mood.

Musical showstoppers in the production include a rousing "America" with Yancy's Anita leading the Shark women. Twirling skirts reminiscent of the 1950's designed by Jen Caprio catch the audience's eyes. Sondheim's brilliant lyrics shine with these conversational musical discussions about those "wishing to live in America," while one line reads eerily prophetic: "I want to bring a TV to San Juan" with the reply "If there's a current on."

Audience members might remember how Puerto Rico had, and still has, power outages from the ravages of Hurricane Maria in 2017. As a territory of the United States, Puerto Ricans are legal American citizens who suffered tremendously during this natural disaster. The Guthrie addressed these circumstances in their June 15 fundraiser for Puerto Rico before the show opened raising $57,300 for hurricane relief.

Then enjoy the jazz rhythms in "Cool," where the Jets assert their authority, and the satirical "Gee, Officer Krupke," which delineates a litany of horrors for immigrants and those living under the poverty level in American society, then and now. Sondheim's poignant lyrics provide a microcosm of social theories clouded in comic reverie, including the line: "I'm depraved on account of I"m deprived."

While Bernstein, Laurents, Robbins and Sondheim based this musical on Romeo and Juliet, a love story, cultural and social dissonance uphold the virtual hate these two gangs feel for the other, merely because of their fear and their supposed "differences." When Anita tries to deliver Maria's message of love to the opposite gang and inform the love-struck, optimistic Tony at Doc's drugstore, violence breaks out. Anita narrowly escapes her own death. When the Jets taunt her without mercy, Doc steps in to perhaps stop another killing from occurring. However, Anita leaves saying, "I can kill because I hate now."

While Anita speaks of hate, fear sets the stage for the potent, tragic events that bring Maria's and Tony's dreams to their cataclysmic end-- fear of a different skin color, different culture, different language, and one person loving someone different from their "own." Mahatma Gandhi quoted to humanity, "The enemy is fear. We think this is hate, but it is fear."

A tatooed, twenty something woman sat beside me at the theater Tuesday night when I attended the performance. While she had heard of West Side Story, she missed the chance to actually attend a performance. When the finale brought death and suffering, she was in tears. Her emotional response attested to the power of theater, the power of West Side Story, to stir the heart and the company's post performance dialogues where the human mind and soul might be softened.

West Side Story, over 60 years old, catapults the audience into contemporary concerns, and transports the audience to hopes and dreams of a less contentious society that audiences will contemplate long after the evening ends. Tony and Maria sing in their, and our, continuous hope: "Somewhere, someday, there's a place for us...hold my hand and I'll take you there... we'll find a new way of forgiving and living."

The Guthrie Theater presents West Side Story in the Wurtele Thrust Stage from June 16-August 24, 2018. For information on current performances, season tickets to the 2018-2019 season tickets, or West Side Story, please visit: www.guthrietheater.org.

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan

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