West Side Story is now playing at the infamous Guthrie Theater and let me tell you, it’s the summer production to see. This production is exactly what we needed in this current political climate because art and theater is political. I'm not saying this show has a political agenda but it just felt relevant with the current world we live in. On the surface, this is a love story about two beautiful souls (loosely based off Romeo & Juliet) but underneath that, it’s a story of racial discrimination and inequality.
West Side Story is about two feuding New York gangs all eyeing for complete control of the street. On one end there are the Jets led by Riff and are “white” (I’ll get back to the quotes later) and on the other we have the Sharks from Puerto Rico and led by Bernardo. Their dislike for each other quickly escalates to point where neither can coexist with any form of understanding one another and their cultures. A former Jet, by the name of Tony, has almost completely dissociated himself with the gang when he meets Maria at a dance. However the dance turns upside down when Bernardo, who is also Maria’s brother, sees Tony and Maria together. Soon the gang’s disagreement escalades to the point of a brawl and before the two lovers can escape, their lives are struck with tragedy and doesn’t stop until their heartbreaking ending.
In a word the Guthrie's production of WSS was brilliant. The story is a timeless and eternal testament to what love is and can be even at first sight. The lyrics are incredible, by the incomparable and my favorite Stephen Sondheim, with a vibrant sense of passion and energy. While the show can be, and has been, done many times, they always still feel very similar and alike. However this production breaks the mold on what it can be. This is a very fresh and new production unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a total of probably 4 or 5 productions of WSS. Everything from the electrifying set to the dynamic costumes and overall concept are so refreshing.
This Guthrie has pulled together an extremely well versed cast with stunning leads that are supported by an extraordinary ensemble. Mark Koeck, who plays Tony, has a tremendous amount of vocal control and this shows when he incredibly sustains long falsetto notes. The only thing that makes him sound better is when his voice is joined with that of Mia Pinero, who plays Maira. Pinero’s angelic voice is so pure that it soars all the way over the audience to the back row. It’s so gorgeous and combined with Koeck it’s perfect. Marco Antonio Santiago, who plays Bernardo, is dynamite every time he is on stage by completely commanding attention from the audience and cast. Darius Jordan Lee, who plays Riff, is an amazing dancer with the perfect sense of cool throughout the show. Overall the entire cast is phenomenal.
For me the highlight of the cast was Ana Isabelle who played Anita. For some reason ever since I first heard the score to WSS and Chita Rivera singing “A Boy Like That” I’ve been in love with the character. She’s strong, confident, beautiful and can be pretty funny. I’ve always been drawn to her as a character and she easily fits in my top five favorite female musical characters. That being said, I’ve seen a lot of different interpretations of the character in person and online however none come close to Isabelle’s portrayal. She is on fire from the first moment her heel touched the stage to every leg kick and every note sung. She brings such a new perspective to who Anita is. While Anita is undeniably beautiful she also is funny. Isabelle plays into the humor of the role but puts a nice twist on it that shows she isn’t just funny but smart and witty with her responses. She comes alive during her dance scenes like in the song “American” while also emoting a fiery passionate rage for her last love in “A Boy Like That.” She was mesmerizing and completely makes the show for me.
I think one of the most important lessons is something not what the show says but was this specific production says about racial discrimination and diversity. Typically, the show is about the Jets who are usually white and the Sharks who are Puerto Rican. When we see the groups together in the beginning of the show, it’s obvious who is apart of which gang however when the dance scene starts, it becomes less clear. The casting of this show includes a wide variety of races for both gangs, not just white and Puerto Rican. The lines are blurred and we really just see them dancing the beautiful and stunning choreography by Jerome Robbins. We really cannot tell who is a Jet and who is a Shark.
I thought this was absolutely brilliant and innovative because the original stage directions address the Jets not as whites but as “an anthology of what it means to be ‘American’” Artistic Director Joseph Haj points out. It’s such a small feature and quick stage direction that most people overlook it. It’s hardly even pointed out but Haj uses this as an outline of everything this production is.
Scenic designer Christopher Acebo enforces this new outline and the themes of the musical through his, at first, what I thought felt, minimalist set. As I walked to my seat I saw barely anything on stage but the orchestra framed by windows of metal. That was until I sat down and saw it while the actors performed. Above the set resides a knocked over Statue of Liberty. She looms in the background through various scenes and almost seems spooky despite that her original intent was to be a sign of hope and new life for immigrants. The rest of the set really did enhance the production because it allowed the choreography to shine even more as the metal frames lit up in a spectacle of lights that sometimes flashed to the rhythm.
Previously I believed it was the most anticipated show of the summer, but now I can confidently say that it is the it show of the year. Its fresh new take on the classic love tragedy that left me with a dropped jaw that is still on the floor of the Guthrie. The Guthrie truly outdid themselves with this production and is one of the best I’ve seen there. Somehow they've managed to take a story that has been told and done thousands of times and still managed to make it feel like a completely new story. I highly encourage everyone buy their tickets quick because it’s selling fast.
West Side Story runs on the Wurtele Thrust Stage till August 26th. It runs approximately for 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission.
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson.