It’s a good time to revisit West Side Story, with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins on Broadway again in a much-hyped revival of the wartime musical On the Town. Harbor Lights Theater Company, Staten Island’s Equity regional company, is staging a worthy revival of their 1950s gang drama at Snug Harbor through November 23.
Stephen Nachamie directs and with Felicity Stiverson re-stages Robbins’s original and unmistakable choreography, without which West Side Story can never quite be West Side Story. Fortunately they have assembled a gifted cast loaded with dance talent. As Anita, a queenly Aléna Watters makes the most physically stunning impression, and has a powerful alto to match. But in the key roles of the ill-fated lovers Tony and Maria, John Grieco and Evy Ortiz are as limber and spry – and as star-crossed and sweet-voiced – as one could hope a Tony and a Maria to be.
The classic number “Tonight” in the famous balcony scene is a showstopper. Broadway music has never surpassed West Side Story‘s score, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. And with Grieco’s clear tenor and Ortiz’s opera-trained coloratura, the romantic song is positively celestial. Equally effective in their varying ways are “America,” “Maria,” “A Boy Like That” and Robbins’s big ballet-like production numbers.
Bernstein’s groundbreaking score with its complex rhythms never gets the best of the cast. Hoofing and singing with equal vigor, Anthony Johnson as Action leads the witty favorite “Gee Officer Krupke” as if he were going all-out for a Best Supporting Actor Tony Award. Indeed a number of the cast members have Broadway and equivalent credits, including with this show. Watters was on the Great White Way in Sister Act and The Addams Family, and as a standby for none other than Anita in West Side Story.
Ortiz meanwhile toured in the role of Maria in the National Tour (and in Japan) of the most recent Broadway revival. Michael Graceffa brings a superb gravity to the role of Bernardo, which he has played regionally before, and Dean Andre de Luna, who doubles as dance captain, shines in the small but key role of Chino.
It’s too bad the orchestra doesn’t stand up to Bernstein and Robbins quite as well as the singers and dancers. At the performance I attended there were some major tuning problems with the strings and winds, along with the occasional rhythmic mis-hit.
As you can probably intuit from the above, though, I was able to put this aside for the most part, as the timeless story, unmatched music and choreography, and top-notch onstage performances rendered relatively unimportant the orchestral imperfections (and the occasional lighting miscues, and some scarily flimsy-looking stage props).
One small moment that stuck with me as emblematic of what’s great about this show occurs during the ballet near the end when apparitions of Riff and Bernardo return and the gangs re-enact in concentrated abstract dance form the deadly rumble that ended Act One. The company bear Tony and Maria aloft, miming their lightning relationship, swinging them close together but then swaying them tragically apart.
The actual ending clearly startled quite a few in the audience, as it likely will anyone unfamiliar with the show. This is a West Side Story to please newbies and old hands alike.