Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Throughout the United States, such disparaging and unwelcoming comments aimed at new arrivals to our shores have been heard, especially among those on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladder who feel threatened by the influx of competitors for their small stake in the American dream. Replace the generic word "immigrant" with "Puerto Ricans" in those sentences, and you have lines directly taken from 1958s West Side Story, which is receiving a powerful, beautifully realized production on the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage.
The landmark musical, sadly, continues to be relevant. The popular image of a melting pot society where anyone is welcome to start at the bottom and achieve their dreams has always been undermined by such harsh realities as racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and, most recently, Islamophobia. Citizens whose immigrant parents or grandparents arrived knowing no English routinely chafe at the next generation of newcomers for not speaking English. As if to make sure that point is not missed by Guthrie audiences, the opening scene of this production features an inverted Statue of Liberty hanging over the rear of the thrust stage to greet the audience and to loom over the rival gangs, Jets and Sharks, as they taunt and brawl with one another.
The landmark musical not only retains its relevance but also its place as one of the most exquisite shows ever written, its perfect synchronization of Arthur Laurents' book, Leonard Bernstein's music, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics birthed by Jerome Robbins' original direction and choreography. This is the centenary year of Bernstein's birth, prompting theater companies around the nation to revisit his work. Artistry presented a grand concert version of Candide this past spring and Open Eye Figure Theatre offers Dear Lenny, a program of music from the Bernstein songbook, in August. But nothing in his canon can match the emotional charge, lyrical beauty and sheer energy of the West Side Story score, beautifully reproduced by the on-stage orchestra under Mark Hartman's direction. They are placed at the rear of the thrust stage, behind a cage that resembles fencing around the inner city playgrounds where Jets and Sharks battle over turf. Sondheim's lyrics are remarkable by any measure, even more so when noting that this was his first produced work.
West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, shifted from Verona in the Renaissance to mid-1950s New York City. It re-creates the blood feud between Montagues and Capulets as the rivalry between two gangs, the Sharks, born in Puerto Rico, and the Jets, whose claim as real "Americans" goes back to their European immigrant parents and grandparents, just far enough for them to view the Puerto Rican-born newcomers with contempt. Amid this bitter struggle for dominance, Mariavirginal younger sister of Bernardo, the Sharks leader and Tony, best friend of Jets leader Riff, fall in love. In spite of the hopeless odds against them, Tony and Maria envision a life that will not only secure their love but bring peace to their embattled neighborhood.
Joseph Haj, the Guthrie's Artistic Director, helms this production with a sure hand, keeping the multiple strands of tension rising, gliding one scene into the next to realize the harsh truth that the best and the worst of these young people's lives are hopelessly intertwined, with the worst seeming to hold the upper hand. He has brilliantly staged the show's two comic numbers, "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke!," to deliver the humor imbedded in Sondheim's witty lyric while shining light on the optimism of the newly arrived (Sharks) and the cynicism that weighs down the Jets who have seen little evidence of the American dream being delivered to them. Haj has cast this production with racially diverse actors. The Puerto Ricans include some with much darker skin than the usual sepia-tones seen in the show. The Jets include African Americans, including Riff, the gang's leader, and an Asian-American member. This may not accurately reflect 1957 New York City historically, but it does bring the show's truth bracingly into 2018.
West Side Story is famously a dance-heavy show, with the original production's iconic choreography by Jerome Robbins, who also choreographed and co-directed the 1961 Oscar-winning screen adaptation that is etched in the minds of millions as the way West Side Story must look. Haj sought out New York-based choreographer Maija Garcia to create new choreography for this production. Garcia preserves Robbins' strong linkage between music, dance and character, and maintains the sense of urgency with which these young people express both the turmoil in their lives and the hope in their dreams. The latter is realized in the beautifully realized ballet sequence, the former in the sexualized energy of "Dance at the Gym" and the anxiety riddled "Cool." What is new here is a broadened dance vocabulary that, like the diverse casting, ensures that the show's look and feel are as relevant to audiences today as its themes.
The five principal roles are played by well-honed actors making their Twin Cities debuts. Mark Koeck as Tony and Mia Pinero as Maria perform their lead roles beautifully, with soaring and well-matched voices, and the acting chops to deliver the book scenes so tenderly written by Arthur Laurents. Koeck delivers Tony's first number, "Something's Coming," as a plea for release from his yearnings, with his final high notes singing "maybe tonight..." forming a prayer. Their wedding enactment in the bridal shop is played with infectious giddiness, while their duets "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart" express the full-hearted vitality of new-born love, with no hint of the tragedy that lies ahead. Pinero conveys Maria's requisite innocence, as in the buoyant "I Feel Pretty," but also reveals grit and determination to push their love forward.
Ana Isabelle is perfectly cast as Anita, girlfriend of Shark leader Bernardo and surrogate big sister to Maria. Isabelle conveys the mix of street smarts, sexiness, spitfire confidence and tenderness within this complicated woman. She brings exuberance to the paean to her new home, "America", and shattering grief to "A Boy Like That." Her singing and dancing are terrific. In dance, she is matched well with Marco Antonio Santiago as Bernardo, with fiery featured spots in "Dance at the Gym". Santiago strikes a strong figure as the Shark leader, defiant in fighting for a share of the streets claimed by the Jets. Darius Jordan Lee is winning as Jets leader Riff, brimming with bravado in "Jet Song," yet showing warmth in his loyalty to his best friend Tony, as they greet each other "Womb to tomb, sperm to worm."
The ensemble are collectively fantastic as dancers, singers, and in each creating a fully realized person, whether a featured character, such as Lamar Jefferson's Action, Leah Anderson's Anybodys, and Christian Elán Ortiz's Chino, or one of the less central, yet still essential gang members and sassy girlfriends. Local veteran actors Raye Birk and Terry Hempleman play kind-hearted Doc and vulgar Lieutenant Schrank, respectively, both doing superb work as adults futilely trying to avert these kids' trajectory toward loss and violence.
The physical production is exquisite. Most notable is Bradley King's lighting, with bright bands of light running downstage to upstage, drop-down globe lights, and a twinkling starry backdrop for the lovers, used to establish the emotional tenor of each scene. Jen Caprio's costumes perfectly reflect the era and the differences between the Jets' and Sharks' sense of styleand they look spectacular on the dance floor. Christopher Acebo's effective set has flats moving in and out for the fire escape, Maria's bedroom, Doc's store, and the bridal shop, and clears the the way to give the full open space over to the "Prologue", "Dance at the Gym", "The Rumble" and the dream sequence ballet.
In spring 2017, just over a year ago, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts mounted West Side Story in a production that was quite wonderful. A logical question for those making theatergoing choices, "If I saw it at the Ordway just last year, why see it again?" To answer, I would say that, as much as I celebrated the Ordway's work last year, the current production raises the stakes in propelling the show's topical relevance into the world we now live in. Aside from that, West Side Story is such a work of genius, that an annual viewing could only be beneficial for body and spirit. As for those who missed last year's run at the Ordway, don't make the same mistake again. Grab one of the few remaining tickets to see this production, ablaze with talent, beauty and heart, at the Guthrie.
West Side Story, through August 26, 2018, the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets from $34.00 to $92.00. Seniors (65+) and full time College Students (with ID) - $3.00 and $6.00 discounts. Public Rush for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $25.00 - $30,00, cash or check only. Gateway tickets for eligible low income patrons, $5.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.
Book: Arthur Laurents; Music: Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Original Production Directed and Choreographed by: Jerome Robbins; Director: Joseph Haj; Choreographer: Maija Garcia; Music Director and Conductor: Mark Hartman; Set Design: Christopher Acebo; Costume Design: Jen Caprio; Lighting Design: Bradley King; Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Vocal Coach: Robert Ramiriz; Fight Director: U., Jonathan Toppo; Casting Consultants: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Michelle Hossle; Assistant Stage Managers: Katherine Kenfield and Nate Stanger; Assistant Director: Christopher Garza; Assistant Choreographer: Omar Nieves; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Kurt P. Jung (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound).
Cast: Adam Brian Ali (A-Rab), Leah Anderson (Anybodys), Fabio Angelo (Indio), Raye Birk (Doc), Brendon Chan (Gee-Tar), Fernando Collado (Nibbles), Mark Deler (Pepe), Kendra "Vie Boheme" Dennard (Graziella), Gabrielle Dominique (Francisca), Andy Frye (Big Deal), Terry Hempleman (Lt. Schrank), Marissa Lynn Horton (Velma), Jordan Fife Hunt (Anxious), Ana Isabelle (Anita), Lamar Jefferson (Action), James E. Johnson V (Juano), Marc Koeck (Tony), Celeste Lanuza (Consuelo), Darius Jordan Lee (Riff), Joel Liestman (Glad Hand), Tomas Matos (Luis), Bill McCallum (Officer Krupke), Tyler Michaels (Snowboy), Andrea Mislan (Clarice), Christian Elán Ortiz (Chino), Mia Pinero (Maria), Jocelyn Iris Rajkumar (Minnie), Devin L. Roberts (Diesel), Carley Villanueva Rosefelt (Rosalia), Marco Antonio Santiago (Bernardo), Tovi Wayne (Baby John), Kristin Yancy (Teresita). Swings: Mateus Barbosa da Silva, Josh Levinson, Emily Madigan.