A Broadway-worthy production!

Published: Friday, May 1, 2015 By: Ed Lieberman Source: THEATRESCENE.Net

West Side Story at WBT

A Broadway-worthy production!  Too bad that this isn’t an open-run venue; this production could -- and should -- run forever!

The story of “Romeo and Juliet” has entertained theatergoers since Shakespeare first published it in the late 1590’s. In recent times, playwrights and filmmakers have adapted the story and/or placed it into contemporary contexts (i.e. “Romanoff & Juliet,” by Peter Ustinov [1968]; Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet [1996]). One of the most successful adaptations was “West Side Story,” one of the most renowned musicals of all time. It was the product of the collaboration of several then and future Broadway icons: Director/Choreographer Jerome Robbins, who came up with the original concept; composer Leonard Bernstein; lyricist Stephen Sondheim (in his Broadway debut); with a book by Arthur Laurents. The show is remarkable in its integration of musical numbers into the narrative of the show and the social consciousness it brought to the timeless problem of intolerance. Theatergoers can now see a new production of this fabled show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre, in Elmsford.  And what a production it is! From top to bottom, stage front and back, this is a Broadway-worthy enterprise, one of the best productions at this 40 year old venue in this reviewer’s memory.  

            For those unfamiliar with the story, just take the story of “Romeo and Juliet,” transfer it from 1500’s Verona to the teeming streets of the upper west side of 1950’sManhattan,  and substitute a Polish-American gang  (the Jets) and a Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks) for Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulet families. When Tony, a founder of the Jets (who is trying to move on from the gang’s preoccupation with its “turf”), meets and falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Jets, well, you can imagine how and why this does not turn out well for the star-crossed lovers.

            The cast is, in a word, outstanding, led by the two leads: Tony, played by Zach Trimmer, and Maria, played by Carly Evans.  Mr. Trimmer is tall, handsome, and has a wonderful voice, carrying off the classic solos “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” with style and emotion. Ms. Evans is short, beautiful and has the acting chops to bring off Maria’s growth from a timid newcomer to a young woman willing to defy her family (biological and gang) to be with her lover. The chemistry between Mr. Trimmer and Ms. Evans is exquisite; their voices meld so melodically and effortlessly in their beautiful duets, “Tonight” and “One Hand One Heart,” that it is easy to overlook the discrepancy in their respective heights. Also deserving of comment is the spunky Anita, played by Allison Thomas Lee, who leads the Sharks in the rousing “America,” and duets with Maria in “A Boy Like That” and “I Have a Love.” The supporting cast is likewise outstanding. This is a demanding show; not only must the cast members act, but they have to sing and dance, as well. And dance they do, from the opening number “Jet Song,” to “The Dance at the Gym,” to the  beautiful “Somewhere Ballet,” this cast can dance, with gusto and with feeling. In addition, they can sing, especially the Jets, who sang so distinctly that every word could be understood in their numbers, the aforementioned “Jet Song,” “Cool” and especially in the iconic “Gee, Officer Krupke.”  Of course, the cast could not have pulled this off without the outstanding direction and choreography of Barry McNab, who handled the same chores in WBT’s 1998 production. From the beautiful “Somewhere Ballet,” to the frenetic “Dance at the Gym “ and “Rumble,” to the attack on Anita at the Drugstore, Mr. McNab’s direction and choreography were spot on, and the performances by the cast, especially the Jets and Sharks, were faithfully executed.   

            The quality of the on-stage cast extended behind, above and below the stage, as well. The orchestra and sound design has not always been the strong point at this venue, but Ryan Edward Wise and the orchestra were outstanding in this difficult score, and Jonathan Hatton and Mark Zuckerman handled the sound flawlessly, as did Andrew Gmoser who oversaw the lighting. Costumes, by Derek Lockwood, too, were beautiful and faithful to the 1950’s time frame of the book.

Ironically, Bernstein and Robbins originally discussed adapting “Romeo and Juliet” earlier, in 1950. At that time Robbins conceived the show to be about an Italian/Catholic boy falling for a Jewish girl, and the title was to be “East Side Story.” One can only guess how different the music and choreography would have been (think “I want to be in Jerusalem”)! Fortunately, thanks to Robbins and Bernstein’s busy schedules, the project was put on hold, to be picked up again in 1955, by which time the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants to New York and the rise of street gangs had taken hold of the public consciousness. This only serves to highlight the timelessness and adaptability of Shakespeare’s play.  If Robbins and Bernstein were alive today I bet they’d think about setting this in the Middle East with Shia and Sunni protagonists.

In summation, it is too bad that this is not a Broadway theater, with open runs, because this production would -- and should -- run forever!

One caveat: The show contains several numbers depicting violence resulting in death, and one scene depicting a stylized rape. For that reason I do not recommend it for younger children.