SALT LAKE CITY — West Side Story is based off of William Shakespeare‘s play, Romeo and Juliet, but set amidst kid gang wars on the streets of New York in the 1950’s. Its themes of star-crossed lovers, race, violence, cultural identity and pride are still prominent in today’s news and society. The original 1957 production was the work of four musical theatre geniuses: Choreographer, Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein; librettist Arthur Laurents; and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The production was revived in 2009 and directed by the only surviving creator, Arthur Laurents. New Spanish lyrics and dialogue was added by Lyn-Maunel Miranda.
According to the stage director, Anne Stewart-Mark, The Grand Theatre‘s production of West Side Story was modeled on Laurents’s 2009 revisions. This revised version was new to me, and I enjoyed the updates, especially with the Puerto Ricans using their native language when conversing with each other. This version feels more realistic and natural. I did miss understanding the lyrics for a few favorite songs such as, “I Feel Pretty,” but because I was familiar with the original version, I was still able to follow along. This production was more raw and gritty than the past productions I had seen.
Reading through the cast biographies before the show started, I was impressed with the resumes of the cast as a whole. Seeing the level of experience throughout the cast raised my expectation before the show started. One thing I really appreciated with this production was that the physicality of Tony (played by Dayne Cade) and Riff (Brock Dalgleish), the founders of the Jets, matched the tough guy look I’d expect to find in gang leaders. The feeling that they were street hardened was furthered along by Tony’s spray painted sign for Doc’s Drugstore. So often, Tony is presented as so clean cut and love struck that it’s hard to understand how he was involved in starting a gang. This new perspective on Tony helped make the gang portion of the story more believable. There was a moment, as Tony was singing the song, “Something’s Coming,” where this new view struggled to stay afloat in the midst of song. Cade did well with the inflections and dynamics of the song, but I did feel that his portrayal of this tougher Tony wobbled a couple of degrees. Doubts quickly fled as the show continued on to the dance at the gym. The chemistry between Tony and Maria (played by Barbara Camara) was so strong that it caught me off guard. Previous shows I had seen made their quick relationship seem like a product of telling a story in such a short time. However, this production made me understand that the story progressed so quickly because of their strong attraction to one another. I was also blown away by the power of both Cade’s and Camara’s voices. Their upper ranges were solid to the highest note, especially in songs, “Maria,” and, “Tonight.” I only wished that Tony’s voice didn’t get overpowered by Maria’s in the the ending of “Tonight.”
Although my Spanish is limited, I appreciated the use of Spanish in the scenes dominated by the Puerto Ricans. This appreciation was especially true with Bernardo, played by Alek Hernandez. Although I could not understand the actual lines, I could always understand the emotion behind what Hernandez was saying. The use of Spanish also made the Latino culture, with its strong sense of family, come to life. Hernandez was realistic in his portrayal of a gang leader and of an over protective brother to Maria. His strong personality and stage presence were well matched by Anita, played by Whitney Harris.
Harris was a solid choice for the role of Anita. She was strong not only in physicality, but also in her stage presence and in her acting, dancing, and singing. There was no question if Anita feel confident and sexy. Every moment Anita was on stage I was seeing a strong confident woman. During the scene where Anita goes to Doc’s to give Tony a message from Maria, I was enraged with how the Jets treated her. Although that particular scene has made me angry in past productions, it hit me harder in this production. I hated the Jets in that moment, and I could understand Anita’s lie to them. The emotion coming from Anita was so tangible. I wish I could have felt that same level of emotion and even rage from her during the song, “A Boy Like That.” During, “A Boy Like That,” there were moments when it seemed like Anita didn’t quite know what to do while Maria was singing, and I would have liked to have seen more emotion from her.
The one performer who completely caught me off guard was Kailey Azure Green who played Anybodys. As the tomboy who so desperately wants to be a part of the gang, Green as Anybodys was convincing. The moment Green as Anybodys truly shined was when she sang during the song, “Somewhere.” Green’s voice was so strong and powerful and seemed to come out of nowhere, because she had blended so well with the rest of the cast during the ensemble numbers. Green had one of the most powerful voices on stage, and yet it was only showcased for one song. I would go to this production again just to hear her sing, “Somewhere,” another time. Green as Anybodys’s emotion went so well with the song, and I loved the glimpse that I had of Anybodys’s heart and vulnerability. The biggest shame is that in the program, the song, “Somewhere,” is miscredited, and another character is listed as the main singer for the song. Green deserves a standing ovation for her performance as Anybodys.
I can’t write about West Side Story without addressing the choreography that is rightfully influenced by the original choreographer, Robbins. This production was choreographed by Christine Moore and Frida Moses. The choreography was everything I could hope for in a production of West Side Story. The best choreography moment was in the song, “Cool.” I loved the tension and pent up frustration from the performers and how that was shown and released through the dance number. Of all of the choreographed numbers, this one was by far the more emotionally charged. Every time a character would pop a pow, it was electrifying. Although the characters were holding back and trying to keep cool, they were dancing with all of their might.
This amazing production was framed and accented by the set design (Keven Myhre) and lighting design (Michael J. Horejsi). The set was industrial with metal siding, wooden pallets, metal grating, and platforms. The set was transformed into different locations through basic set pieces, but mostly through lighting. The set and its various textures created through open spaces were beautifully showcased in silhouettes against a pool of purple and pink lights. It was treat to see a set and light design mesh so smoothly and showcase each design.
I thoroughly enjoyed the gritty and raw revised production. The level of quality performance for the relatively low ticket price is above that of other performances I have been to with high ticket prices. This production is definitely a PG-13 production, because it deals with mature themes and is more gritty than the original production. If you are bilingual in English and Spanish, this production offers an additional treat. If you love West Side Story, but haven’t had chance to see the revised production based on the 2009 Broadway revival, The Grand Theatre’s production is a must-see.