Monday, June 6, 2016

REVIEW: AFTER 25-YEAR ABSENCE, “WEST SIDE STORY” LIGHTS UP PAPER MILL PLAYHOUSE STAGE

By Ruth Ross

Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents may have written West Side Story back in 1957, but its driving rhythms, energetic dancing and beautiful melodies remain fresh today. And it is a testament to the mega-talent of the young cast in the stellar production at the Paper Mill Playhouse that we care about these characters and events in a way we would not expect to feel about young men who are, essentially, hoodlums, and their girls waging race war on the streets of New York.

Yes, the gang members today may be older and more violent, but the juvenile delinquents who made up the gangs of New York in the 1950s were every bit as terrifying to urban dwellers then as the Crips and Bloods are now. Unfortunately, the themes of prejudice and hatred continue to resonate today in inner cities here and abroad.

The basic story of West Side Story is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet translated to the streets of New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, with Montague-Capulet strife replaced by gang warfare: the Puerto Rican Sharks vs. the white Polish-American Jets. Caught in the crossfire of hatred are Tony, a former Jet, and Maria, sister of Shark leader Bernardo. We watch their forbidden love grow and root for the couple as they dream of finding “A Place for Us” where they can live in peace. Like its model, West Side Story doesn’t end on a hopeful note; Maria’s anguished cry at the end chillingly reverberates through the Paper Mill Playhouse auditorium. It’s a sobering moment and great theater in the most classic dramatic sense. (Above: the gangs get ready to rumble.)

From the first strains of the orchestra accompanied by some snapping fingers, the entire stage explodes in a whirlwind of movement, a marvel of synchronization, as is “The Dance at the Gym” with its mélange of dance styles and rhythms. The male dancers portraying the Jets and Sharks leap across the stage as they engage in mock combat, and their girls shake their skirts and move in intricate formations at the Mambo competition at the dance in the gym. Alex Sanchez has reproduced the challenging dances originally choreographed by the great Jerome Robbins, and the young actors perform them with great energy and skill.

Standouts in the gangs include Jet leader Riff, played by Mikey Winslow (top, center), and Cody Williams as Action; both have beautiful singing voices, move lithely and exhibit great stage presence. German Alexander as the Shark leader Bernardo is appropriately menacing and outraged that his sister would even look at a Jet. The rest of the gang members (it's difficult to keep track of who's who) are also terrific. They perform the complicated dances with agility in and lend good vocal support to Riff and Bernardo. Natalie Cortez (above, center) as Maria’s friend Anita is a real firecracker in “America,” and her duet with Maria, “I Have a Love” is extremely poignant and tender, considering what has happened to Bernardo. Of the Girls, Tenealle Farragher as Graziella, Riff's girl, commanded the stage whenever she appeared, whether in the dance at the gym or the ballet sequence that accompanies "Somewhere."

In the two focus roles, Matt Doyle as Tony and Belinda Allyn as Maria (right) are riveting, and the romantic chemistry between them is palpable. Their kisses are convincing, and the moment they spy each other (and are hit by Cupid's arrow) attests to the youthful ideal of "love at first sight." Too, Allyn and Cortez get the Puerto Rican accent just right without sounding like caricatures. Both lovers have magnificent singing voices: Tony's brims with optimism while Allyn's soaring soprano fills the auditorium. Tony’s earnest desire to distance himself from the Jets renders his involvement in the rumble even more touching. Allyn and Doyle are especially heartbreaking in “One Hand, One Heart;” several audience members could be seen wiping away tears.

The adult roles are also well played. As Lt. Shrank, William Ragsdale exhibits an imperious manner, and his own prejudices make him part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Jay Russell's Doc is appropriately ineffectual in the face of raging teenage hormones, as are Craig Wletzko as Glad Hand and Kevin Loomis as Officer Krupke.

This frenetic action occurs on a set designed by James Youmans, complete with a fire escape, a soda fountain and the looming silhouette of a bridge under which the rumble occurs. Dana Burkart has provided costumes appropriate to the period and different cultures; Amanda Miller's hair, wig and makeup design complete the colorful picture. For instance, the Sharks' girls wear brighter colors than do the Jets' women. Charlie Morrison's lighting and Randy Hansen's sound convey the urban environment and the passage of time very well. One nice touch is that during the fire escape (balcony) scene (above), all vestiges of the city disappear as the lights are trained on the lovers, conveying their total absorption in each other. And Steve Orich's musical direction never overpowers the young singers as the orchestra plays the familiar Bernstein melodies.

The perfect blend of book, music, lyrics, staging and dancing, West Side Story is the epitome of American musical theater. The added tragedy of Tony and Maria reminds us that, despite improved communication between people, despite the interest in immigration, multiculturalism and political correctness, sectarian strife continues to leave tragedy in its wake. And it all stems from, as one character puts it, fear.

West Side Story will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through June 26. Paper Mill Playhouse, a leader in accessibility, will offer audio-described performances on Saturday, June 25, and Sunday, June 26, at 1:30 PM. Prior to these performance at noon, the theater will offer free sensory seminars that offer an opportunity for patrons with vision loss to hear a live, in-depth description of the production elements of the show and hands-on interaction with key sets, props and costumes. There will be a sign-interpreted and open-captioned performance on Sunday, June 26, at 7 PM. Free audience enrichment activities for West Side Story include Conversation Club in the mezzanine at 6:30 PM on June 16 and 23, and a Q&A with the cast following the matinee in the orchestra on June 25.

For information regarding performance dates, seating and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or online at www.PaperMill.org.

Photos by Matthew Murphy and Jerry Dalia.