WEST SIDE STORY: A Summer of Love and Musicals
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage
Performances: June 22 – July 29, 2018
Ticket Prices: $36-62
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
With a large cast featuring many new (to Richmond) faces, the familiar and beloved musical, West Side Story, soared on the November Theatre/Arenstein Stage on opening night. Having just seen Romeo and Juliet at the Richmond Shakespeare Festival last week, it was insanely fitting to see West Side Story just days later. One is set in the 16th century in Verona, Italy, and the other in New York City in the 1950’s, but not much has changed about human nature in the intervening centuries.
The rivalry between the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, a gang of white Americans who want to hold on to their turf, erupts in a rumble. When Maria, sister of the Shark’s leader Bernardo, and Tony, one of the founders of the Jets, meet at a dance and fall in love, the inevitable tragedy is set in motion. The intolerance of the Jets, most of whom are only first or second-generation Americans – Tony, for instance, is the son of Polish immigrants – towards the recently arrived Puerto Ricans eerily echo recent headlines and newsfeeds. At one point, Anita bemoans the fact that most Americans don’t even realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It doesn’t help that both groups repeatedly refer to Puerto Rico as my/your country.
Brittany Santos, in the lead role of Maria, was a surprise. Her voice is outstanding, powerful, and has an angelic clarity that is perfect for the role – a role she has, in fact, performed previously, at Arizona Broadway Theatre and Cortland Repertory Theatre. Physically, she fits the role as well, bringing a petite, youthful innocence with a burgeoning sense of self-determination. In her first scene, she is a timid and obedient young girl; in her final strut across the stage, she is a young woman who has looked tragedy in the eye and overcome some of the trials of adulthood.
Justin Luciano, as Tony, is a young man in search of himself, and as such, is harder to pin down. His singing is strong and clear, but his speaking voice was, at times, muffled, and it was hard to tell if it was a technical difficulty or a speech impediment. His singing of the signature song, “Maria” was appropriately haunting. Maria does not have any real solos, but duets with Tony, “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Somewhere” are the songs people who have never seen the show on stage or film are familiar with. Both are songs that introduced many people to the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and in the hands – and mouths – of Santos and Luciano, they came alive again.
I must confess that anything I have to say about the role of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, will be colored by my fond memories of playing that role in community theater as a teenager. Maria Cristina Slye brought a balance of sassiness and humanity to the role and did not disappoint in her big musical number with the rest of the Shark girls in Act 1, “America.”
Other lead roles included Eddie Maldonado as Bernardo and Corey Mosello as Riff, the leader of the Jets. Among my favorite characters is Anybodys, the tomboy who so badly wants to be accepted as a member of the Jets. Carly Natania Grossman played this role with spunk.
For the most part, the adults in West Side Story are peripheral characters, almost like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. But Jay O. Millman was a strong, conciliatory figure as Doc, the owner of the local drugstore and soda shop – similar to the Friar in Romeo and Juliet. Andrew C. Boothby as Lt. Schrank and Gregg Lloyd as Officer Krupke are portrayed as somewhat comic characters, often the butt of jokes, as in the Jets, “Gee, Officer Krupke” number, but also complicit in the discrimination. While they go through the motions of keeping the peace, their words and actions indicate that they, too, have issues with the new immigrants.
The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and the Richmond production was directed by VirginiaRep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw with original choreography reproduced by Matthew Couvillon. The choreography is bigger than life, bold, hard hitting, sometimes awkward, rather than pretty – like the surrounding tenements and chain-link fences. West Side Story has some of the best original choreography of any musical, and this production meets all expectations on that front. The women’s kicks and leaps seem to pull their legs right out of the socket and the men are ferocious – leaping over one another and attacking the fight choreography with relish.
Shaw’s direction is organic and seamless. Scott Bradley’s soaring two-story set design is suitably gritty, and imaginatively lit by BJ Wilkinson, who has roving lights that mimic the activity of the urban setting. Sarah Grady designed the costumes, which make it easy to distinguish between Jets and Sharks when they are onstage together, and Derek Dumais designed the sound. A live band keeps things moving, under the able and energetic direction of Anthony Smith (Mary Poppins, Fun Home, The Color Purple).
There’s also new balcony seating, a Puerto Rican Rum Punch at the bar, and a Leonard Bernstein display will be exhibited at Virginia Rep outlining Bernstein’s contributions to the theatre, If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, ¿que estas esperando?
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten