Musical, Heartbreaking West Side Story Shows that Dance is a Language (5 Stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
West Side Story, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Bob Richard, with Choreography by Diane Laurenson, Music Direction by Milton Granger, Scenic Design by Kyle Dixon, Lighting Design by Jack Mehler, and Costume Coordination by Mark Nagle, plays at Bill Hanney's North Shore Music Theatre, November 1-20, 2016. See www.nsmt.org.
West Side Story is inspired by Romeo and Juliet. Again, two lovers meet from opposite sides of two warring factions, in this case white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York City. Can love overcome prejudice and environmental differences?
Choreography, by Diane Laurenson, is the real star of the show, especially in the first act where dance performances are even more powerful and moving than the live orchestra and actors singing. The Jets, who seem to be Italian and Irish, have ballet moves even though they are tough guys, but it works. The Sharks, fresh immigrants from Puerto Rico, have their own distinctive Latin dance style. You can feel the clash of cultures and how dance is a form of communication in their movements.
The immigration story is nuanced and deep, and it's sad to think that 50 years later we are still stuck politically in arguments about immigration. But of course the story is one of love. We also learn a lot about gang mentality, how shame, broken homes, and idleness cause jealousy that turns into turf wars. We also get to know many of the secondary characters, including powerful women, in this large cast of 27 actors.
It's all heartbreaking. Kudos to Hannah Balagot (Anybodys), the gang aspiring girl who just wants to be one of the guys. Michelle Alves (Anita) is completely convincing in a challenging role as an advocate for sometimes peace, sometimes war.
Of course, it's a love story, which takes the heartbreak to a much higher level. It's possible that West Side Story is the most emotionally moving show that I've seen at the North Shore Music theatre. The chemistry between Tony (Bronson Norris Murphy) and Maria (Evy Ortiz) made me tear up right away. They had a love so pure that you can understand why they cannot deny it, even though the entire cast is far older than the teens they are playing. Their love becomes like a prayer, a celebration of the divine through tenderness towards each other.
The show was so uplifting that I just about forgot that it's based on Romeo & Juliet, which is of course a tragedy. Without giving anything away, Tony and Maria's love soars so high that it becomes madness and then things happen that will shock you to your core. Will they ultimately find a happy ending? You'll have to see it to find out, but you will be on the edge of your seat the entire time, a truly powerful performance. Then the singing and dancing!
As usual, the staging of the show was excellent, set in a round theatre with seating on all sides. Set changes were instant, token staging dropping from the ceiling that did not block anyone's view.
Oddly, for a show about young people set in 1957, none of the youths have heard of rock music. The music is jazz or Latin, with slow singing set against a rapid orchestra beat. Some of the songs are classics that will have you humming all week, but a few seemed out of place to me. I didn't get much from the jazz finger snapping of "Cool", and "Gee, Officer Krupe" seems misplaced comes in Act Two, as it serves to introduce the motivations of the characters. And by Act Two all we care about is the central tragedy, not backstory.
West Side Story is yet another must-see musical at the North Shore Music Theatre, which as I've said before is a fantastic venue where you can arrive early and dine. Don't be a couch potato who's afraid to drive up to Beverly. Just go!
I'm glad to give the show a full 5 stars. Don't miss it.