BWW Review: WEST SIDE STORY At Lyric Theatre Brings Surprising And Profound Depth Alongside Exquisite Dancing
This updated retelling of Romeo and Juliet is set in 1950s New York City, yet its themes of racism and hatred of anything deemed "different" ring especially true in today's political climate, sadly.
The show opens with a balletic brawl (made famous in the 1961 film adaptation) between the Jets, the all-White gang, and the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang of immigrants. This altercation sets the tone of the evening: bottled-up, boiling-over, adolescent anger let loose through superb and graceful choreography. Christopher Rice portrays Riff, the current leader of the Jets, with certainty and aplomb: his dancing is polished yet vigorous at the same time, while his scene-work reveals Riff's childish indecision...a boy thrust into a man's world. Ryan Fitzgerald as Action is unpredictable and sporadic in all the best ways: one never knows which fuse is going to blow next, and his explosive energy detonates through his use of the choreography. All the Jets (Gordie Beingessner as Baby John, Conor M. Donnelly as Snowboy, Jeff Jordan as Diesel, Ty Hunter Taylor as Big Deal, Sean Watkinson as A-Rab, and Abbie Ruff as Anybodys) blow us away with their choreographic prowess, but equally shine in their vocal and acting moments. Most of the performers have played their roles before (many of them in director Gardiner's 2015 production at Washington DC's Signature Theatre) so they offer added depth and subtlety to their characters that most shows with such a brief two-week rehearsal period are not afforded the opportunity to explore.
The central lovers of the story, Tony and Maria, are a pure and utter joy to behold. MaryJoanna Grisso uses the character of Maria to showcase her crystalline soprano - so pure and effervescent that I sometimes questioned if she was even singing...but then her tone would shine through, proving Grisso in consummate mastery of her instrument. And don't get me started on her final monologue at the end of the play: gut-wrenching. Austin Colby as Tony possesses a supple voice that ascends to the heights of Leonard Bernstein's score with ease and agility. After his first big solo of the evening - "Something's Coming" - there was a vocal assuagement throughout the audience as he introduced us to the profound world of blooming, virtuous optimism. Yet he never came across as weak or unsteady: throughout the show Colby perfectly balanced the innocence of first love with the bravado of a young man who must rely on his street-smarts to make it through life.
The Sharks fare just as well as the Jets in Lyric's production: Gino Chaviano as Chino, Maria's intended, is suitably forgettable until the course of events causes him to impetuously rupture not only his life but that of everyone around him. Alexander Cruz's Bernardo delivers a strong, masculine frame and technique in his dancing while his acting remains open and engaging. Bernardo's girlfriend Anita - played by Desirée Davar - offers a disciplined and technically sound dancer, until she fully implodes with pathos in the second act as Anita's world comes crashing down.
Matthew Gardiner directs this show with conviction and authenticity. Placing the acting front-and-center (let's face it, acting is often the forgotten component in many musical productions) Gardiner carefully crafts the scenes for maximum emotional impact, building the symphony of Arthur Laurents' script as precisely as he does Leonard Bernstein's score. It's definitely worth noting how fabulous the orchestra sounds, led by the baton of music director Jan McDaniel. Choreographer Amy Reynolds-Reed recreates the critical and iconic moments of Jerome Robbins' original staging, but adds quite a few novel and contemporary surprises without ever taking us out of the world of the play.
WEST SIDE STORY is a compelling reminder of just how much hatred, prejudice, and ignorance can destroy what we all hold so dear. One of Lyric's most fully realized productions I can think of in recent memory...do yourself a favor and allow the message of this piece to penetrate your heart and mind - for truly great art has the power to influence the world.
Performances of WEST SIDE STORY continue through Saturday July 29, 2017 at the Civic Center Music Hall. Click HERE for tickets, or call 405-524-9312