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Review: Fresh and Exuberant WEST SIDE STORY at Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre's WEST SIDE STORY brings freshness and exuberance to the classic work. The exceptional production in an intimate space allows us to consider anew the songs and scenes that have been part of our lives for half a century.

For any who think WEST SIDE STORY with its "daddy-o's" and soda shop war council is a quaint look at a time gone by, we need only hear Maria's cry that we kill not with bullets or knives but with hate to know that this classic musical call for racial tolerance is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Entrenched rivals who hold fast to stereotypes, cops who bend the rules in the name of public safety, the thought that others need to be "put in their place" ... some things never change.

Director Matthew Gardiner puts the music and dance at the fore in Signature Theatre's WEST SIDE STORY. Dancing is quite literally "in your face" with the audience pressing in on three sides, incredibly close to each forceful lunge, turn and kick. There's no opportunity here to fake it or phone it in. With up to 30 cast members in the larger production numbers, the song and dance overflows the thrust stage and spills onto gritty elevated catwalks. Parker Esse's choreography based on Jerome Robbins' original Tony Award-winning 1957 work emphasizes the great power and athleticism of the cast. The dance choreography merges effectively with Casey Kaleba's fight choreography in the many tense altercations between the Sharks and Jets. This fused purpose is illustrated spectacularly in the first few minutes of the production with a brawl that involves Action (Ryan Fitzgerald) hurling himself through the air in a near swan dive at Pepe (Ryan Sellers) - a move that involved masterful timing and a whole lot of trust.

At the heart of the story are Tony and Maria, winningly portrayed by Austin Colby and MaryJoanna Grisso. We first see the baby-faced Colby alone on the stage singing Something's Coming. Although it is just Colby with little action on the bare stage, we are drawn in, we share his crackle of anticipation. Colby's assurance and ease as the hard-working and loyal Tony bring depth to the role. Grisso's protected and innocent Maria is a lovely complement. Grisso's clear and lovely soprano is especially beautiful in Balcony Scene and Tonight. Somewhere is beautifully staged by director Matthew Gardiner with a great swirl of action around the lovers but spotlights focused only on Tony and Maria.

Natascia Diaz brings power, verve and sass to the role of Anita, both foil and guide to Maria. While America is the better-known song and is infectious fun, it is the much darker A Boy Like That which showcases Diaz's command and intensity. As the feud between the Sharks and Jets unspools, Diaz is carefully measured and hauntingly tragic in Anita's trip to the drug store to warn Tony.

The entire cast has the challenge of overcoming the audience's past WEST SIDE STORY experiences, generally mediocre (at best) high school productions and hairbrush-microphone cast album sing-alongs. Yet right from the first note of Jet Song Max Clayton as Riff makes clear this is a forceful and polished production. Clayton also leads the Jets through a Cool that is anything but - the number sizzles and pops.

In the theater world they talk of triple threats - artists who can act, sing and dance with equal talent and ease. This WEST SIDE STORY cast is chock full of triple threats so each scene is a delight whether it is witty banter, energetic dance or some of the most recognizable songs in musical theater. Sean Ewing's Bernardo, Bobby Smith's Doc and Maria Rizzo's Anybodys stand out in a cast of exceptional talent.

No ornate sets or fussy costumes here, but in their restrained simplicity both production elements effectively set us in time and place. Misha Kachman's flexible scenic design takes us from the streets of New York, to Doc's drug store to Maria's bedroom with a few strategic set pieces whisked into place as a suggestion of more. Elevated catwalks and metal ladders suggest the fire escapes and elevated highways of the city and allow the action to continue around the theater on multiple levels. Frank Labovitz's costume design helps underscore the contemporary audience's view of the relative innocence of the mid-century given the heightened racially-based gang violence on our streets in the ensuing 50+ years since the creation of WEST SIDE STORY. Shark and Jet gang members are in dungarees or khakis with spiffy sneakers. High-slit pencil skirts versus layers of crinolines differentiate the female Sharks and Jets. The script dictates that Maria is dressed more conservatively than the others; in this production her dresses veer close to dowdy but it serves to effectively emphasize her youth and innocence and how new and sheltered she is within the community.

With 17 musicians (four reed players! two trombones!) under the baton of conductor Jon Kalbfleisch things are pretty cozy in the musicians' elevated loft. Leonard Bernstein's iconic score is full and lush in Signature's production.

It can be a challenge to balance the singing voices with such a hearty orchestra, but Lane Elms' sound does so. However the spoken dialogue is a bit disconcerting at first since in the intimate 276-seat MAX Theatre it is evident the sound of the actor's amplified voice is emanating from a speaker placed elsewhere so it can be difficult to identify who is talking. At the Thursday performance there were a few minor issues with body mics that hopefully have been ironed out.With this outstanding production forged by a deeply talented cast and production team, Signature Theatre brings to a new generation this masterful work that merges the genius of Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), Jerome Robbins (concept) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). And to this new generation the work underscores the sadly timely message of the folly of intolerance and brutality. Adult Doc asks: "When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!" Young Action rightly points out, "We didn't make it, Doc." This WEST SIDE STORY, which begins with a crude epithet and ends with regret and bloodshed, is deeply felt and expertly focused. In the intimate space of the MAX Theatre, tickets will likely go fast so don't wait.

Runtime: 2:30 including one intermission

WEST SIDE STORY (based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) runs through January 31 with shows Tuesday through Sunday evenings with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Additional performances have been added on Monday, December 21 at 7:30 PM and Thursday, December 24 at 2 PM. There are no evening performances on December 24 or 25. The production is at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington. For tickets or specific performance times, please visit Signature Theatre's website here.

For audiences 12+

Photos by Christopher Mueller. At top: Kurt Boehm (Diesel), Colleen Hayes (Velma), J. Morgan White (Snowboy), Max Clayton (Riff), Ryan Fitzgerald (Action), Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab), Shawna Walker (Pauline), and Maria Rizzo (Anybodys); next: Ryan Sellers (Pepe) and Ryan Fitzgerald (Action); center: Austin Colby (Tony) and MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria); next: Max Clayton (Riff); bottom: Michael Graceffa (Indio), Ilda Mason (Francisca), Natascia Diaz (Anita), Katie Mariko Murray (Rosalia), and Olivia Ashley Reed (Consuelo).

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