Poignant, powerful West Side Story “rumbles” Chicago stage
Reviewed by Dwight Casimere July 20, 2011
Photos: National Tour of West Side Story © Joan Marcus 2010
There are still a few of us around who remember the original production of West Side Story, starring Carol Lawrence and Chita Rivera at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York. Even more recall seeing the 1961 MGM film version, starring Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in a recent cable TV presentation on Turner Movie Classics. Neither of those experiences prepared one for the impact of the tour of the smash hit Broadway revival now underway at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago, through August 14.
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet in a play conceived by two-time Tony Award-winner Arthur Laurents, with unforgettable music and lyrics by theatre and music legends Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the current revival is both poignant and powerful. With its underlying themes of racial tension and teen gang violence, it resonates with as much of the ring of truth as it did at its 1957 premiere.
This new production, recreated for the tour by David Saint, the associate director on Broadway, packs its own punch. The dancing, in which Joey McNeely lovingly recreated Robbin’s groundbreaking choreography, thunders across the stage like a hurricane.
The singers, led by Kyle Harris as Tony and Ali Ewoldt as Maria, scale the difficult chromatic heights of Bernstein’s Copland-like melodies with the skill of Lyric Opera singers and lend a ravishing sense of drama to Sondheim’s expressive lyrics.
The dance numbers are all show stoppers. Scenic designs by James Youmans (Gypsy), costumes by Tony Award nominee David C. Woolard (The Who’s Tommy), lighting by Tony Award winner Howell Binkley (Gypsy, Jersey Boys), sound design by Tony Award nominee Dan Moses Schreier (Gypsy) and hair by Mark Adam Rampmeyer, all combine to make this an entirely enthralling production.
All of the great tunes are there; Tonight, Maria, I Feel Pretty, among others. We know them all by heart, yet they are delivered with such urgency on stage that we suppress the urge to sing along.
There are some exquisite moments, such as the duet “Tonight” in the Romeo and Juliet-like balcony scene in the Alleyway and the intimate mock wedding in the Bridal Shop with Tony and Maria kneeling almost as if in prayer to sing “One Hand One Heart.” It is a thrilling moment that is heartwarming, yet foretells the tragedy that awaits them.
There are some bright moments too, such as the quartet on “I Feel Pretty” in Maria’s Bedroom, including Spanish-language lyrics (“Me Siento Hermosa”), which lends an air of authenticity. Nice touch! The high-note competition at the end provides a nice showcase for the vocal stamina and near-coloratura of the female cast members.
Among the lead performers, Michelle Aravena as Anita is a standout with her seasoned talent. Likewise talented is Joseph J. Simeone as Riff. He is an accomplished dancer who has performed internationally with Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris and it shows. The brilliant dancing and choreography in “Jet Song” at the outset of Act I sets the stage for the terrific show that follows.
Cameo performances contribute as much to the overall success of this production as the lead roles. Mike Boland as Officer Krupke and Ryan Christopher Chotto as A-rab provide sparkling comic interludes. John O’Creagh is appropriately world-weary as the beleaguered Doc.
As scenes go, you can’t beat “The Rumble” Under The Highway for staging, scenery, lighting and drama. The well orchestrated ‘fight’ scenes and the razor sharp (pardon the pun) moves of the dancers kept the audience on the edges of their seats.
West Side Story rocked the very foundation of the musical theatrical world at its premiere some 50 odd years ago. It still continues to do so today.