Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

West Side Story
The 5th Avenue Theatre
Review by David Edward Hughes


William Branner and Rebbekah Vega-Romero
Photo by Tracy Martin
Though it opened on Broadway 62 years ago this September, West Side Story is still packing a wallop and earning standing ovations in a safe, but solidly professional re-creation of the original Broadway production. The music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (in his Broadway debut), and Jerome Robbins dances (satisfyingly reproduced here by choreographer Bob Richard) have aged better than Arthur Laurents' now rather hackneyed but still workable script which resets Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in gang war-ridden late 1950s Hell Kitchen, in New York City. 5th Ave Avenue's Artistic Director Bill Berry has done more impressive work directing several other Golden Age musicals, but the pace and the majority of the casting of the key roles are assets to the production, as is the fine musical direction by Matt Perri.

The Montagues and Capulets of Romeo and Juliet are supplanted here by the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks gangs. Tensions are high between the gangs from the opening blazingly danced "Prologue" and "Jet Song." What really ignites the passion and tragedies to follow is the love at first sight romance of former Jets gangleader Tony and Maria, the sweet younger sister of Sharks kingpin Bernardo. Tony's brother by proxy Riff and Bernardo set up a "Rumble" gang fight with tragic consequences for both Riff (killed by Bernardo) and Bernardo, whom Tony attacks in response. Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend, is bitterly angry at Tony for killing the love of her life, and at Maria for wanting to safeguard Tony. Even when Anita comes around and tries to help the young couple, anger, bigotry, and more death presage the final curtain.

As Tony and Maria, William Branner and Rebbekah Vega-Romero both have fine voices, with Branner perhaps being the best sung and acted Tony I have seen over the decades, and Vega-Romero conveying the child/woman Maria is. Branner's solos on "Something's Coming" and "Maria" are musical gold, Vega-Romero is funny but never too brash in "I Feel Pretty," and their duets "One Hand, One Heart", and "Tonight" are luminous. Having the score's most haunting and enduring song, "Somewhere," sung in the act two ballet makes much more sense than to have it sung, as in previous revivals, by an offstage voice or a young boy. Their brief reprise of it near show's end work even better this way.

Danielle Gonzalez is simply galvanic as Anita (Laurents' best developed character), leading the other spirited Shark girls in "America," hitting all the emotional levels Anita must in her "A Boy Like That"/"I Have A Love" counterpoint number. Dan Lusardi's Riff and Alexander Gil Cruz's Bernardo are believable in their war council confrontation and as gang leaders. Lusardi is effective in "Jet Song" and "Cool," and all these leads as well as the excellent men from both gangs wow on the enduringly electric "Tonight (Quintet)." Most of the dance ensemble are also members of Seattle's well-regarded Spectrum Dance Theatre, and get many opportunities in this dance-heavy show. Sean G. Griffin as Doc, Tony's employer/mentor, is generously warm and understated, while Jim Gall does what he can as the unctuous Lt. Schrank, Nathan Brockett gets some laughs as Gladhand, and Richard Gray's Officer Krupke seems to have wandered in from a Keystone Cops short.

Michael Christoffel's icy-feeling Hell's Kitchen metallic mix of ladders, platforms and bridges is essentially the same design, with perhaps a few tweaks, as he devised for the 5th Avenue's last West Side Story, in 2007. Mary Louise Geiger provides another stunning, brand-new lighting design, helping us imagine the suns and moons all over the place (a favorite early Sondheim lyric) in his city. Justin Stasiw's sound design is crisp, clear and robust, though Rose Pederson's costumes are rather flavorless, if appropriate. As usual, the company's orchestra is big and bountiful. Mr. Bernstein would surely approve.

All things considered, it will be interesting to see how the latest imminent Broadway revival and 2020 film remake (the first to eschew reproductions of the Robbins choreography) are received. But as this West Side Story illustrates, the new creative teams have big shoes to fill.

West Side Story, through June 23, 2019, at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle WA. For tickets or information call 206-625-1900 or visit www.5thavenue.org.


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