In the canon of American musical theater, “West Side Story,” utterly groundbreaking in its time, remains close to perfection. And the opportunity to see a truly excellent production, such as the one currently running at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, should not be missed.
The creation of a dream team of celebrated American masters, “West Side Story” opened on Broadway in 1957, and was seen as a remarkable revolution in the art form. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (in his Broadway debut), the show is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that was made into a film in 1961 with another set for release in 2020.
Gritty, urban and violent, it exposes the ugliness of bigotry and gang warfare — but beautifully so, with gorgeous, complex music, poetic lyrics, and driven by extraordinary dancing, more than had ever been seen before in a Broadway show — contrasted with an unforgettable love story that’s stunning and evocative no matter how well you know it.
But particularly so when a production gets it all so right, as they do at HSRT. Directed by Mary MacDonald Kerr with an eye for detail and with a talented cast and excellent design elements, this West Side Story maximizes the power of “West Side Story” as a classic.
Leslie Vaglica’s period costumes evoke the 1950s, especially with dresses that move beautifully on the women, and those for the men delineate the Jets and Sharks with muted and bright color schemes; Sarah Pearline’s stark, black, multi-level sets on wheels are remarkable and allow for quick set changes and visually interesting scene work; Alan Piotrowicz’s are appropriately bold, highlighting fear and doom, such as using bright red at the end of Act I as a precursor to The Rumble, and yet are also soft and warm during romantic scenes.
At turns masculine and romantic, with wonderful Latin flair, Chaz Sanders’ choreography is full of explosive leaps, claps and snaps, and lyrical swirls, an homage to Robbins and executed beautifully.
The ensemble is simply marvelous and creates exquisite big dance scenes such as “The Rumble” and “Dance At The Gym.” Their voices are stunning as they swell together in the medley “Tonight” at the end of Act I. Kudos to Music Director Alex Thompson and his superb orchestra, practically ever present in their support and movement of the narrative.
Other highlights include “Gee, Officer Krupke,” full of physical comedy that makes a potentially corny number genuinely silly and fun with much-needed, well-placed levity; as well as “America,” the lively, beloved classic, led by the marvelous Natalie Mara as a fiery, compassionate Anita.
Also especially wonderful in a secondary role is Ali Louis Bourzgui as Riff, whose voice and performance shine in numbers such as “Cool.”
Ben Lohrberg’s singing is a revelation as Tony; his longing and love are palpable in his voice alone, particularly his exquisite high notes. Sara Ornelas’s Maria is naive and her longing and love palpable, too, but more so in her nuanced acting. Their strengths together make for an extraordinary union and a relationship that emerges, evolves and ends with great emotion. And, miraculously, they are convincing teenagers as well as tremendously sophisticated.
There’s such joy in experiencing a well-made piece of art brought to life with great heart and beauty. And the depth of theme — love, hate, belonging — will always be relevant; but through the particulars of immigration, intolerance, injustice, “West Side Story” is especially poignant today.
West Side Story
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre
June 29-Aug. 8