Thank you to director Jim Corti and his team at the Paramount Theater for acknowledging that the West Side Story of 1957 needed some retooling.
To give due credit, Jerome Robbins was a Broadway pioneer that brought grit to the stage with his concept for West Side Story. It had ethnic slurs; it had teens talking back to adults; it questioned the validity of the American dream. But… within the grit of West Side Story, Robbins mixed in a generous supply of gold flakes. Due to choreography that Robbins created for Broadway and immortalized in the 1961 movie, gang members always looked like they would be more at home in ballet class than in an actual fight.
Where Robbins emphasized aesthetic beauty beyond the rough exterior of New York’s most disenfranchised youth, Corti has harnessed their anger… and the anger seeps from every pore of this brilliant revival. Starting with the opening Prologue of Leonard Bernstein’s iconic score (played by an 18-piece orchestra… Paramount’s largest of the season), spotlights shift among the Jets and Sharks as they expel cries of rage. They prep themselves for the fight to come like boxers before a grudge match—practicing not only right hooks but also hitting themselves on the forehead as their adrenaline explodes. When the fight starts, blood packs drip across the stage.
Make-up and costuming further contribute to the original concept. The Jets appropriately have matching jet-shaped tattoos along their biceps and many have tattoos that extend right up their necks. The Sharks, in contrast, are much more stylish. They wear suits to the dance in contrast to the Jets’ jeans and worn jackets. They wear pressed black pants to the fight and are quick to strip to form-fitting undershirts to intimidate. In short, these Jets and Sharks are guys that would make a passersby on the street step a little further to the curb to give them their space.
Ryan McBride emerges with a break-out performance as Action, Riff’s first lieutenant that is unrelenting in cutting off Doc’s (Tom McElroy) Act 1 lecture with the proclamation that “You was never my age. None of you!” McBride is the focal point of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” a number that is problematic with the traditional staging. Despite having just witnessed two deaths and endured harassment from the police, the Jets generally break into a high-energy comedic number mimicking the dim-witted Office Krupke (Joe Foust).* Under Corti’s direction, the same musical number is a much darker, more internal exploration of the characters’ anger toward a society that judges them at every turn yet offers them no hope for the future. Gone are the usual laughs, replaced with a more modern depiction of the problems that plague the streets of impoverished areas.
This original approach to West Side Story does not diminish the classic music, featuring at least six Broadway standards from this Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim collaboration. Will Skrip as Tony delivers on one showstopper after another starting with solo numbers “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.” Zoe Nadal as Maria contributes another exceptional voice during her four numbers (“Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “Somewhere”). Mary Antonini is fantastic not only for her singing during “America” but also for her acting, presenting Anita as an immigrant just as spiteful as Bernardo (Alexander Aguilar) toward the second-generation Americans .
Paramount did not set out to produce my Grandmother’s West Side Story (and I say that with the utmost of affection for my Grandmother, who just turned 93). This West Side Story is not about groups of kids that see the errors of their ways after teenage shenanigans spin out of control. Instead, Corti allows this classic to breathe new life based on the realities of our modern world.
*NOTE: The movie version of West Side Story switched the placement of “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” when compared to the stage production. This switch helps in allowing the characters to explore their emotions at more fitting times within the larger plot.