West Side Story

Danielle Marie Gonzalez and Ensemble perform “In America” from “West Side Story”, now playing at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre through June 23.

Earlier this season, I attended ACT Theatre’s enthralling production of “Romeo And Juliet.” Appropriately, I concluded this theater season with “West Side Story,” back at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle for the first time since 2007. As most everyone is aware, “Romeo And Juliet” serves as a template for “West Side Story,” the gritty, groundbreaking musical from 1957 concerned with street gangs and the tragic repercussions of hatred, prejudice and violence. The 5th Avenue production is just as enthralling as ACT’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and in some ways more frightening.

“We live — unsurprisingly — in very divided times where hostility and anger boil over more often than not,” director Bill Berry said in an interview. “I think ‘West Side Story’ speaks to the idea that we need to see each other as human beings first and foremost… if we continue to create and embrace divisions that are in many ways artificial, we will not be able to function as a community and as a society.”

In 1957, “West Side Story” lost the Tony Award for “Best Musical” to the more pedestrian, safe and homespun hokum of “The Music Man.” Still, “West Side Story” signaled a change in the wind on Broadway in terms of musical theater form and content. Critics and the general public did not fully grasp how revolutionary “West Side Story” was until the 1961 movie version swept 11 Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” and “Best Director,” shared by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. The movie turned “Story” into a “popular success,” and it seems poised to stay that way forever.

2020 may well be the year of “West Side Story Revisited,” with a Broadway remounting from experimental Dutch director Ivo Van Hove featuring new choreography by Anne Terese De Keersmaeker, and a completely unnecessary “film remake” by Steven Spielberg.

I was excited to see the near-perfect 5th Avenue production. This is, I think, a last glimpse of the show as the creative team of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents originally intended it to be, before “West Side Story” is retooled too much.

The 5th Avenue production fires on all burners with its high-voltage fusion of music, dance, and drama. The signature choreography of Jerome Robbins remains intact here, so the production delivers with the full-throttle, hyper-kinetic kicks and jolts we expect. Moreover, all the musical and dance numbers build solidly and dramatically upon each other. And the 5th Avenue Theatre orchestra, led by conductor Matt Perri, is superb.

The basics of “Story” are well-known. Star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria (William Branner and Rebbekah Vega-Romero) are caught in the cross-fire of the gang war between the Jets and the Sharks. Tony’s best friend Riff (Dan Lusardi) leads the Jets, and Maria’s brother Bernardo (Alexander Gil Cruz) heads the Sharks. Racist cop Lt. Shrank (Jim Gall) tells Maria, “There was trouble at the dance last night because you danced with the wrong boy.” Well, “trouble” is an understatement, to say the least.

Dan Lusardi, Gabriel Corey, Alexander Gil Cruz, Danielle Marie Gonzalez, and Sean G. Griffin are all excellent in their respective roles as Riff, Action, Bernardo, Anita, and Doc. If there is a tiny flaw in the construction of “Story,” it is simply that the central characters of Tony and Maria, in the euphoria of first love, are not as compelling as the tumultuous and violent activity that constantly swirls around them.

Both the Jets and the Sharks are portrayed as hot-blooded and angst-ridden. The two gangs also get the best musical and dance numbers, including “Mambo,” “In America,” “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The relationship between Bernardo and Anita is sizzling and sexual. By contrast, Tony and Maria seem too chaste and sweet. Mr. Branner, with his near-operatic vibrato, and Miss Vega-Romero, with her strong and clear soprano, play their roles and sing the popular duets “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” with sincerity and intense conviction. And the full cast Quintet version of “Tonight” is stunning.

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