Whoever said “The more things change, the more they stay the same” got it right again. Amid the ambitious sets, familiar music, and strong dance scenes, West Side Story reminds us that the harsh realities of our differences can be tragic, but we have to continue to hope that our similarities and our humanity will win in the end. When I went to see Drury Lane’s new production of the 1957 Tony Award-winning musical, I was humming “I Feel Pretty” and “America” to myself (having sung a medley in choir somewhere along the way), but partway through the first act, as the Sharks and Jets began to plan their rumble, I found myself thinking about current events across the country and how art continues to imitate life.
Despite all this inner reflection, I thoroughly enjoyed this classic take on Romeo and Juliet (yes, it’s that layered – race relations and gangs and young love and balcony scenes). This new version the beloved classic from Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Steven Sondheim is directed by Rachel Rockwell and choreographed by Associate Director Rhett Guter (who also plays Riff). All the elements of a great run (and it’s already been extended) are here and will only get better with repetition.
West Side Story brings us the age-old tragedy of star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, who hail from rival factions on New York’s gritty West Side. Tony is a member of the Jets gang, though he’s trying to get out. Maria is the sister of the Sharks leader, Bernardo, who leads the gang of young men from Puerto Rico. The Jets (and the local police) want the Sharks to get off their turf, and tensions rise. At the local dance, Tony and Maria find each other and it’s love at first sight. They want to stop the rumble and be together, but through a series of events, Tony is caught in a terrible fight that gets Bernardo killed. The events that follow can break your heart.
Tony is played by Jim DeSelm and Christina Nieves portrays Maria. Their beautiful voices brought the familiar songs to life and made me believe in their love. Nieves gave a particularly compelling and emotional performance. Perhaps my favorite character was Anita, wonderfully portrayed by Michelle Aravena (who played the same role in the National Tour of West Side Story). Certainly the character as written is one that any actress would love to play, but Aravena gives Anita a sass and emotional depth that gave me chills at times. The portrayals of Bernardo (Lucas Segovia) and Riff (Rhett Guter) were standouts.
West Side Story relies on the dance sequences much more than other musicals. Both the men’s and women’s ensembles were excellent and quite polished for opening night. The choreography brought the scenes with the gangs to life and the ballet in the second act was breathtaking. The music pulses throughout with jazz licks and tricky songs. The orchestra and singers were up to the task. If I had any requests at all, it would be to ensure I heard Maria’s gorgeous soprano clearly when she is singing with Tony or in the ensemble performances.
The set (designed by Scott Davis) was versatile and helped convey storyline. I especially liked the use of the chain-link fencing that could be moved in various directions. At times, there was a feeling of being confined and that played well with the story. The drugstore had a timeless feel and Maria’s bedroom and dress shop gave a view into her life. The costumes (Erika Senase)were simple but effective for the times. Jeans, t-shirts, jackets, all appropriate. And the Shark women’s beautiful Spanish dresses were gorgeous at the dance and as the women performed “America.”
West Side Story has one musical hit after another. Much of the score is so well-known. All of the music was done well here. I especially enjoyed “America,” “Tonight,” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
I recommend this new staging of West Side Story at Drury Lane. This production is another hit from Executive Producer Kyle DeSantis that is sure to delight every audience. I would note that there are a couple scenes that are PG-13 at best.
West Side Story is playing now through March 29, 2015 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oak Brook, IL. Check their website here for more details or call the box office at (630) 530-0111.
Photographs courtesy of Brett Beiner.