Based on “Romeo and Juliet,” the 1957 musical “West Side Story” is an artfully put-together commentary on the dangers of two sides — families, religions, countries — constantly fighting for no good reason. “Because we don’t like them” and “They’re not like us” are not acceptable answers. Neither is “territory,” but that’s too often the impetus for one group to battle (or outright wipe out) another.
“West Side Story” is also a story about immigrants, and this writer has not seen that aspect explored as successfully as in Casa Mañana’s current revival, directed by Eric Woodall. It’s an incredibly meaningful message at this moment in time.
The Puerto Ricans in New York are the obvious immigrant story in “WSS,” and their existence has the white kids, the Jets, riled up. But the musical’s creators — composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, book writer Arthur Laurents — also remind us that the white people were immigrants, too, from Poland and elsewhere.
Woodall and his designers give this “West Side Story” a more contemporary look — mainly in Tammy Spencer’s brilliant costumes, which meld current looks with ’50s silhouettes seamlessly, with the Sharks in white (and off-white) and the Jets in blacks and grays. Samuel Rushen’s lighting beautifully accents them as well as Bob Lavallee’s multilevel scenic design of fire escapes with roll-on set pieces for Doc’s store, the dress shop and other locations.
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The director’s concept and the visuals are realized by a cast (mixed with locals and performers from the New York/national talent pool) that doesn’t invite comparisons to other performers you’ve seen in these roles. Addie Morales reminds that, as in Shakespeare’s play, Maria (Juliet) is the more complex of the star-crossed lovers. She sings with joy and verve, and her anger and heartbreak in that final scene punches every emotion. As Tony, John Riddle soars on his two most difficult songs, “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.”
As Anita, Cassidy Stoner has the expected sensuality and humor, several times over, and in the crucial scene that sets up the ending, exhibits soul-stirring rage and disgust as she realizes that some people aren’t willing to listen, to their detriment.
Other fine acting and vocal performances come from Sean Ewing as Bernardo, Jacob Rivera-Sanchez as Chino, Adam Soniak as Riff, Adam Jepsen as Action and Jill B. Nicholas as tomboy Anybodys. Don’t leave out the adults: David Coffee as Doc and Gladhand, Greg Dulcie as Lt. Schrank, and Bob Reed as Officer Krupke.
Music director and conductor Edward G. Robinson and his orchestra of 11 instrumentalists balance with the singers and onstage action.
Jeremy Dumont has reproduced Jerome Robbins’ game-changing choreography exquisitely, overcoming the challenges posed by Casa’s modified thrust stage. The “Cool” dance is as emotional and rousing as ever, and the second-act ballet sequence is breathtaking. Part of that is due to Woodall and Spencer’s costuming theme, which brings all sides together for one beautiful, goosebump-inducing dream ballet.
In this production, Maria’s proclamation “I can kill now because I hate now!” ranks with the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific” as one of the most powerful messages about racism in musical theater. When it’s not “carefully” taught, it’s nonetheless ingrained — and it’s ugly.
Some might consider the final visual of Woodall’s production heavy-handed for a show that is already about the dangers of hating “the other.” It feels absolutely necessary; the visual version of an earlier scene in which the Sharks whistle “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.”
This “West Side Story” is of the now — and for the ages.