Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Anyone reading this no doubt knows that West Side Story is the 1958 musical based upon William Shakespeare's tragedy of doomed young love, Romeo and Juliet. The setting is changed from Verona at the dawn of the Italian renaissance to mind-1950s Manhattan, and the two families engaged in a blood feud, instead of the Capulets and the Montagues, are two gangs of aimless young men and their girlfriends, the Jets, descended from European immigrants who have established a precarious sense of ownership of their street turf, and the Sharks, recently arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico. Romeo becomes Tony, a founding member of the Jets along with his best friend Riff, in the place of Romeo's cousin Benvolio. Juliet becomes Maria, sister of Bernardo, who is leader of the Sharks and a stand in for Juliet's cousin Tybalt. Anita, Bernardo's earthy girlfriend and Maria's confidante, completes the quintet of major characters. Just as for the Romeo and Juliet, blind hatred and intolerance destroy the spark of happiness that ignites all too briefly for Tony and Maria.
The Ordway has had great success over the past few year mounting original productions as part of their theater season, along with the touring shows. There have been a few misses, too, but that's show biz. Damn Yankees, The Pirates of Penzance, A Christmas Story, and Sound of Music all earned high marks, with production values and on-stage talent to match or exceed the national tours. Their production of West Side Story, in collaboration with Teatro del Pueblo, sets a new high bar of excellence: dazzling performances, beautiful set, costume, and lighting design, a tone-perfect orchestra directed by Raymond Berg, a sound system that delivers both the soaring music and book scenes with distortion-free clarity (a weakness of too many touring shows), choreography that draws with splendid fidelity on Jerome Robbins' original masterwork, and directed with breathless fluidity and focus.
Of course, it takes great material to enable a team of artists and performers to spin this kind of stage magic. Some passages of West Side Story's book, by Arthur Laurents, can sound creaky, due to the use of 1950s street vernacular, but in the hands of director Bob Richard and performed by this cast, it comes across with vibrant currency. The score is a seamless blend of Leonard Bernstein's musichis last and greatest Broadway successand Stephen Sondheim's lyricsthe first produced work of his legendary career. It includes immortal love songs ("Maria," "Tonight," and "One Hand, One Heart"), buoyant songs of hope and self-affirmation ("Something's Coming" and "I Feel Pretty"), two masterful works of satire ("America" and "Officer Krupke"), and the prayerful "Somewhere." Bernstein's glorious dance music for "The Prologue," "Dance at the Gym," "Cool," "The Rumble," and "The Ballet Sequence" has never been topped. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are witty where wit is called for, tap the depth of emotion with great simplicity and, vitally, extend the vernacular voice of each character into authentic expression through song.
Tyler Michaels, appearing as Tony, has been collecting well-earned rave reviews whenever he goes on stage, but he has never before played a full-out romantic leading man. He can add this to his list of triumphs. Michaels projects youthful naiveté, which at first seems at odds with Tony's gang leader past, but bears fruit when he is love struck, and everything in the world becomes possible for him. His soaring renditions of "Something's Coming" and "Maria" and the duets "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart" fill the stage with untethered emotion. Evy Ortiz is a New York based actor who played Maria in the national tour of the recent Broadway revival. Here, her Maria shines with the yearning of a girl longing for true love and meaning, radiant in finding it, and unshakable in her faith. She projects Maria's playful yet innocent nature. Her voice is full and lovely, blending beautifully with Michaels' in their duets.
Desiree Davar is terrific as Anita, the firebrand who freely admits to her physical longing for Bernardo, while protecting Maria's virtue. She sings cynically in "America," seductively in "The Quintet," and ferociously in "A Boy Like That," and her dancing is amazing. In that, she is well matched by Alexander Gil Cruz as Bernardo. His performance shows how Bernardo's wounded pride and the need to have a place in his new home lead him to gang life, and his natural leadership is evident. The amazing dances he and Davar perform in "Dance at the Gym" have stiff competition from the Jets' leader, Riff, played by Tyler John Logan and Larissa Gritti as his girlfriend Graziella. Logan's portrayal of Riff underscores his cool head and determination to hang on to his hard-won piece of street; in his encounter with his best friend Tony, he reveals vulnerability, pleading for Tony's support not because Tony can help the gang win their fight, but as an affirmation of their bond of friendship.
Other stand outs in the cast are Morgen Chang as Anybody's, a girl desperate to be accepted as one of the Jets; James Michael Detmar as Lt. Shrank, trying to keep the gangs from killing one another; Mark Rosenwinkel as Doc, the kind drugstore owner who tries mightily to understand the lost youth; Josh Zacher as Jets member Baby John; and Gabrielle Dominique who impresses with a solo turn in "America". But the entire cast of twenty-nine is superb. I cannot overstate the quality of dance in this production. While a number of cast members come from outside the Twin Cities' cadre of actor-dancers, Teatro del Pueblo worked in collaboration with the Ordway to reach out to our Latino community, offering coaching in musical theater to dancers who had not before found their way to the form, with great results. That collaboration will continue with an upcoming production of In the Heights to be staged at the Ordway in September.
James Youmans' set design captures the feel of mid-1950s Manhattan, with oppressive raised highways and railroad lines, and iron-barred fire escapes. Mark Koss's costumes perfectly fit young men or the era striving to look tough, the young ladies hoping to be desirable, filtered between New York cool and Puerto Rican tropical senses of style. Karin Olson's lighting works wonders, such as giving the gym the aura of a stained-glass windowed cathedral when the frenetic dancers leave and Tony is left alone to raise his voice in "Maria," a hymn to new-found love.
I know it is unreasonably bold to call any show the "best musical ever." I can think of a dozen right now that, on another day, given another production, might usurp that crown. But I can say that the Ordway's West Side Story is the best for this moment. It is not so much that for all time this is the best, but that the feeling of heart, the abundance of beauty, the joys and sorrows, the exhilaration in performance, and the marvel of invention, both by the show's original creators and the team behind this production, left me on a theater high from which I am in no hurry to come down.
West Side Story continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through April 16, 2017. 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets from $124.50 - $37.00, Standing Room: $34.00. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or go to Ordway.org.
Book: Arthur Laurents; Music: Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Original Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins; Director: Bob Richard; Choreographer: Diane Laurenson; Musical Director: Raymond Berg; Scenic Design: James Youmans; Costume Design: Mark Koss; Costume Coordinator: Andrea M. Gross; Lighting Design: Karin Olson Sound Design: Andy Horka/Big Air Productions; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Rick Polenek; Casting: Reid Harmsen; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Production Stage Manager: Sharon Bach; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft
Cast: Rush Benson (Action), Bob Beverage (Glad Hand), Morgen Chang (Anybody's), Alexander Gil Cruz (Bernardo), Desiree Davar (Anita), Dean Andre De Luna (Chino), James Michael Detmar (Lt. Schrank), Gabrielle Dominque (Rosalia), Mollie Fischer (Minnie), Andy Frye (Diesel), Larissa Gritti (Graziella), Patrick Charles Jeffrey (Pepe), Kayla Jennerson (Consuela), Tyler John Logan (Riff), Emily Madigan (Francesca), Abby Magalee (Margarita), Lauren Masiello (Velma), Dario Mejia (Luis), Giselle Mejia (Teresita), Tyler Michaels (Tony), Joey Miller (Big Deal), Bryan Charles Moore (Snowboy), Evy Ortiz (Maria), Pedro Rangel (Toro), Mark Rosenwinkel (Doc), Carl Schoenborn (Officer Krupke), Ashley Selmer (Estella), Jordan Weagraff (A-Rab), Josh Zacher (Baby John).