The history of DC’s National Theater amazes me sometimes. Did you know that the seminal, classic Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical West Side Story had its world premiere at the venerable theater August 19, 1957 – before it went on to fame and fortune on Broadway?
The revival also premiered in 2008 at National, and the North American tour ends here as well. Believe it or not this was my very first time seeing a production of one of the essential musicals that every theater lover is supposed to see.
Lavish, beautiful, colorful, and big are the best words to describe director Arthur Laurents’ touring production. This staging is based on the recent $14 million Broadway revival that opened in 2009 to critical raves, with 27 previews and 748 regular performances. Clearly there was a hunger for this show, a musical that somehow touched the cultural zeitgeist. The Fox show Glee even had an episode dedicated to West Side Story, shamelessly tied to the 50th anniversary release of the film on Blu-ray, but you get the gist. There’s a hunger for this story. Why not? It’s a timeless Romeo and Juliet romance wrapped around the luxurious trappings of the stage.
Set in 1950s New York, the story is about two rival gangs, the all-white Jets and the Hispanic Sharks. When the Jets’ Tony (Jarrad Biron Green) meets Maria (Maryjoanna Grisso) sparks immediately fly because her brother is the leader of the Sharks. After being assaulted by a group of Jets he’s out for blood, so Tony and Maria keep their burgeoning love a secret. The story is more than Romeo and Juliet, it’s about social class, veiled racism in the 1950s and more. You know there’s no happy ending here, so you just roll with it.
The large cast is uniformly excellent and while the headliners sizzle, special mention has to go to Benjamin Dallas Redding who plays Jets leader Riff, Michelle Alves as Maria’s friend Anita, and Michael Spencer Smith as Maria’s brother Bernardo. While there is a lot of dialogue in this musical most of the key moments and emotional beats are truly driven by an amazing score that includes well-known classics like “Something’s Coming,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” and more. The choreography by Joey McKneely is outstanding and is helped along by the beautiful classic costumes lovingly reproduced by David C. Woolard, all under the direction of David Saint.
Fans of the show will recognize James Youmans’ scenic design work right away. This production does a fabulous job of recreating the classic sets and iconic lighting designs that have set this musical apart from all others. Every moment of this show felt fresh, new and vibrant. When describing this revival, Saint explained, “This new version boasts an authentic muscularity to its tone – one which honors the diverse nature of its story and fortifies the atmosphere of prejudice against which this extraordinary love story can play out.”
Sadly the tour ended in DC, but DC theatergoers were treated to something special and it was great to see a show go out at the top of its game. For more information on the show visit http://westsidestoryontour.com/ .