I tend to think everyone in the world has seen “West Side Story,” yet I wonder if people younger than 40 know the story. After all, it’s been 58 years since it premiered on Broadway and almost 55 since the popular film starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn rocked America’s movie houses.
With music by the great Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it was a sure-fire hit. Yet it seldom plays regional theaters. In the nine years I’ve been reviewing plays in the South Sound, I’ve not seen it once until this week at Tacoma Musical Playhouse.
I suspect it’s too big for local theaters to handle. Robbins’ choreography, and the athletic dance moves as adapted locally by Jon Douglas Rake and co-choreographer Jimmy Shields, is probably as tough a challenge as that of any musical. At TMP, the dancing might not be as sharp or as smooth as it was in the movie, but these are amateurs and they don’t have multiple takes as in the movies. The set also is a challenge, but designer Bruce Haasl does a superb job of creating a 1950s Manhattan Upper West Side street scene that smoothly converts to the interiors of Doc’s Drugstore and Anita’s apartment.
What everyone should know by now is that it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” set in an ethnic, blue-collar area of New York City with Puerto Rican and Italian street gangs instead of Montagues and Capulets. Maria (Melissa Maricich) is the modern-day Juliet, and Tony (Ryan Anderson) is the modern day Romeo.
An interesting point that says a lot about the time and place is that the Italians were not called Italian, but simply American; whereas the Puerto Ricans were called Puerto Ricans. By the 1950s Italian immigrants had assimilated into the American culture, while the Puerto Ricans had not, and there was hot debate among them as to whether or not they wanted to assimilate, as humorously illustrated by the catchy tune “America,” a duet between Anita (Melanie Gladstone) who wants to be American and Rosalia (Brynne Geiszler) who longs to go home to Puerto Rico.
The street gangs, the Jets (“American”) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican) are at war. Tony is a former leader of the Jets who has outgrown the gang. He meets Maria at a dance and they immediately fall in love and try tragically to consummate their romance amid the ongoing rival warfare. Tony tries to be a peacemaker, as does Doc (Joseph Woodland) and the cops, Lt. Schrank (Martin Goldsmith) and Officer Krupke (Chris Serface), who are stupid, incompetent and racist.
The story is romantic and tragic, but there are wonderfully comic moments such as the aforementioned song “America” and the most comical bit in the musical, “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” wonderfully sung by Action (Jake Atwood) and danced with great style by the Jets.
The songs “Maria” by Tony, “Tonight” by Tony and Maria with the entire cast, and “Somewhere” with solos by Tony and Maria plus Clarice (Maggie Barry) and Francisca (Francesca Guecia) are among the most beautiful love songs ever written.
There is a lot of fighting and a rape scene, all of which are executed with highly stylized yet tasteful dance moves. Bernstein’s music, which blends the operatic with popular music, and Sondheim’s inventive lyrics go a long way toward making this among the best of musicals.
While TMP’s production might not place this among the top two or three musicals of the year (I’d give that honor to TMP’s “Evita,” “Cabaret” at Tacoma Little Theatre, and Center Stage’s “For All That”), it is certainly more than worth the price of admission.