How lucky am I to be able to see full productions of the two biggest Broadway hits of the 1957-1958 season all in the same week? One night I get to see The Music Man at Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, and the next night I’m enjoying Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story! Both are now revered as classics, were made into very popular and faithfully adapted films, and for well over fifty years have been performed thousands of times a year all over the country from high schools to regional theatres. One can’t really be considered a fan of musicals without becoming acquainted with these evergreens; their songs pop up all the time in popular culture, and chances are you’ve heard some of them even if you didn’t know from where they originated.
Meredith Willson’s The Music Man was the big Tony Award winner in 1958 and the longer-running hit, but West Side Story, with a searing Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by the up-and-coming Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography courtesy of the legendary Jerome Robbins, has emerged as the more serious classic. Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the action has been transplanted to the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1950s as rival gangs, the Jets (who are white) and the Sharks (who are Puerto Rican), fight for dominance. Caught in the crosshairs are Tony, a sometime member of the Jets, and Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. Tony and Maria meet at a school dance, fall in love, and try to stop the gangs from fighting to discover things will only get worse before they begin to get better. With nearly every now song an established classic (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “Somewhere,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “America” to name but a few), West Side Story continues to capture the heart of each new generation, thanks to the 1961 film and the play’s continued popularity. This current production, featuring Columbus Children’s Theatre’s Summer Pre-Professional Company of performers ages sixteen to twenty-two, is about as engaging and rousing a production as one is likely to find, “pre-professional” or not.
These Jets and Sharks dance, fight, and spit with equal intensity (stage combat aided by William Goldsmith), and each performer appears fully cocked and ready to attack anyone who gets in their way. I remember some snickering from my classmates when we watched the movie in high school during the opening dance sequence; no one would dare to scoff at these Jets and Sharks, especially once they see them believably kick and punch each other to the ground! It’s interesting to note that all but two of the Jets and Sharks are wearing identical black Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes, a nice visual reminder that they have so much more in common than they seem to realize.
As sweet and innocent as Tony (Andy Simmons) and Maria (Elizabeth Blanquera) are in this production, they can’t help but appear less exciting when stacked next to the excellent supporting cast: Austin Ryan Backus as Riff exudes confidence and swagger; Matthew J. Mayer II makes an intense Bernardo; Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo is a firecracker as Anita but also heartbreaking; Will Thompson plays Doc like a wise, concerned older brother, making an impact in a part usually ignored; and Charlotte Brown should be watched closely in the small role of Rosalia, especially for her hilarious facial expressions during the dance at the gym.
The only serious flaw in this production occurs during the ballet (which is not in the film). This ballet leads into “Somewhere” and begins strongly with Riff and Bernardo reappearing after the violent end of the first act; then, inexplicably, a little boy climbs out of Maria’s bedroom window, down over the fence, sings “Somewhere” at Tony and Maria (now dressed in just a slip), and then scampers back up to from where he came. Though staged a bit differently, this addition of the character “Kiddo” and reassignment of the song was made by original book writer Arthur Laurents for the 2009 Broadway revival he directed; it was widely criticized then, and it’s inclusion in this production is a glaring sore spot. It has nothing to do with the ability of the kid playing Kiddo; the moment comes off as schmaltzy and like a lecture to the characters, bringing to mind this verse in Isaiah: “And a little child shall lead them.” I began to wonder why a little kid was squatting in Maria’s bedroom and if someone should let her know.
Luckily everything gets back on track when some of the Jets sing “Gee, Officer Krumpke,” far funnier with lyrics and gestures that were greatly toned down for the film. This is one of several scenes in which Jordan Feliciano as Baby John is a riot, donning a mop on his head and squeaky voice. As humorous as this sequence is, Ms. Gutierrez del Arroyo’s “A Boy Like That” that follows it is conversely serious and impassioned. Songs were moved around for the film to provide a more consistent tone for that medium, but the flow of the original play works marvelously on the stage.
Director David Bahgat incorporates many design elements from the film (unavoidable with its popularity) and expands upon them, the Jets costumed in blue and yellow and the Sharks in purple and red; the lighting is also used in this color motif effectively without being too obvious. Mr. Bahgat keeps everything moving at a brisk pace (save for the aforementioned break in the ballet), and he guides his cast into making each line sound like it is theirs and theirs alone. I’ve seen several productions were the actors copy each line reading as it was done in the film; that isn’t the case here at all, and many times so much more humor and character comes across because of it. He keeps his actors moving all around the audience, maintaining an immediacy that a lesser director wouldn’t bother trying to create. The marvelous set designed by Jeffrey Gress represents all of the different locations needed for the story, elements of which extend out around the audience, making this what I would consider an environmental staging; a low chain link fence separates the audience from the cast on the left and right sides, Doc’s storefront is between the center and right seating areas, actors often enter the center rows of the audience and sit alongside them, and (depending on where one is sitting) Chino (Frank Ruiz) can be seen stealthily sneaking down the alley between the center and left section of seats leading up to the intense climax.
The four-piece band led by Zac DelMonte kicks into high gear during the “Tonight” quintet and rumble, though the limited orchestration takes a little time to get used to at the start of the show. Nicolette Montana does a fine job of recreating iconic moments from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, adding and changing bits here and there to suit the space and production demands; aside from a moment during the prologue when the Jets shout “Ha!” and jut their hands out into the audience, Ms. Montana’s work is commendable and adds so much to this overall splendid production.
Except for a few missteps (mostly minor), Columbus Children’s Theatre’s West Side Story is nearly impossibly good. With action occurring from all sides of the theatre and an energetic cast that knows this show like seasoned pros, this West Side Story is one to see no matter how many times you’ve seen the play or movie before. Most of the performers appear to be exactly in the right age range of the characters they are playing, from late teens to early twenties, but this is the exception rather than the rule when compared to the film or Broadway productions of this show. The “us verses them” struggle between the Jets and the Sharks is still relevant today; one need only to watch the daily news to see how fear of the “other” continues to incite violence and be used politically to pit people against one another.
*** 3/4 out of ****
West Side Story continues through to July 17th at Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/west-side-story.html