All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Some ’50s touches, like the constant use of the term, “buddy boy” and other hip lingo that may have been neat or cool when “West Side Story” was new in 1957, may grate on the modern ear, but Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins crafted a show for the ages, a work of art that combines the best elements of serious drama, opera, dance, entertainment, and musical theater. When a poll was taken to see what people regard as the most influential American musical, I bypassed “Oklahoma,” “The Music Man,” and “A Chorus Line,” and voted for “West Side Story.” The national touring company now playing at Wilmington’s DuPont Theatre reminds me of why.
The tour has a young cast, many of whom are hitting the road with recent university degrees and some of whom are in the midst of earning theirs. At first it looked as if director David Saint, taking over for the late Mr. Laurents, and choreographer Joey McKneely populated their stage with dancers who could handle Robbins’s iconic ballets, mambos, and finger-snapping production numbers at the expense of some singing and acting. The opening sequence when we meet the Sharks and Jets, and the Jets go into their “when you’re a Jet” song, is strong and muscular, in a way that shows the pent-up energy and macho competition Anita will explain to Maria later in the show. The dancing and movement is sharp, but some of the power diminishes when the dialogue begins, and the singing voices don’t have the weight, depth, or earnestness of the dance routines.
This difference between high-quality movement and decent but uninspiring vocals will soon cease to be a problem. As this tour of “West Side Story” unfolds, the sincerity of the acting, and the reality the performers create on the DuPont stage, give the production the intensity and personal connection it needs to play out the tragedy Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim so brilliantly plot. The youth of the actors turns from a source of concern to a source of advantage. The actors in this production are raw and real. The awkwardness they seem to show at the beginning adds to their portrayals of confused kids who, in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen of the late ’50s, live in an almost feudal world of claiming turfs and holding on them by fighting others. In “West Side Story,” this gang mentality, that likely would have existed even if the teens were all of one kind, is exacerbated by the influx to Hell’s Kitchen of Puerto Rican and other Hispanics. As this productions settles in, and you see some of the actors in individual scenes, it takes on a texture that allows the genius of “West Side’s” creators to come through. It also makes you intensely care about the people you’re seeing, all of them. Even Chino, usually a figure in the background, registers as real and human and in turmoil. The acting can remain ragged in spots, the singing often unassured, but the humanity in the characters and the earnest performances at the DuPont overcome all, and this tour of ‘West Side Story” will show you the majesty of the piece and move you to honestly earned tears at various points in the show.
Leonard Bernstein was torn during his illustrious career. Colleagues in the classical world, the truly international collection of symphonic orchestras, solo virtuosi, and committed musicians, often chided him for writing so much for Broadway theater. They considered Bernstein’s forays into musical comedy as a misuse of his talents, a travesty of sorts. Even the soaring achievement of “Candide” could not convince many to leave Bernstein at peace to be versatile. “Candide’s” box office failure accentuated their arguments.
I’ve always regretted that Bernstein did not write more for the theater or opera. His scores are vibrant. They establish the appropriate moment or emotion in the show while being inventive and artistic. Bernstein not only had the potential to be one of the greatest Broadway composers of all time, he lived up to that potential. The pity is he wrote so few shows. Even with “Candide” in the mix, “West Side Story” is the lasting prize, the great gift of a genius to a never-ending and always appreciative audience.
Bernstein’s score thrills. It sets up the rhythms of Robbins’s dances, re-created by McKneely, while giving lead players and ensemble members alike a chance to excite and touch the audience with beautiful ballads, heady confrontations, and spirited comic numbers with the right amount of musical wit and humor in them, e.g. the horn vamp in “Officer Krupke.” Sondheim’s lyrics, the composer’s first important work ever, are superb, expressive and evocative like Bernstein’s music. Laurents’s book deftly incorporates Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” plot into a story about New York youths. But it is Bernstein whose work makes “West Side Story” tower over all other musicals, and this tour allows you to appreciate all of the creators’ achievements.
Casting young means casting true to the ages the characters are. The restless energy of the Jets and the more formal stance of the Sharks are evident everywhere on stage. Dances are particularly lively, and the many extended dance sequences are a constant treat, especially the “America” number led by Michelle Alves as Anita and supported well by the taunting Gabriela Albo as the Puerto Rico-favoring Rosalia.
This cast reflects innocence in all things that don’t have to do with street life. They know how to dance, rumble, choose their clothes, be cool, and be disrespectful, but except for Anita, they don’t have mature ideas about love or creating a reasonable adult life.
Tony, when we meet him, is beginning his change from a street kid to a responsible adult. He is in the throes of thinking about what’s important about life and how to attain it. He also anticipates an event or sign that will guide him as he wrestles with growing up beyond the ways of the ghetto where he lives.
Maria has only been in America a month when she and Tony meet at the dance. She is only slightly aware of the enmity between “Americans” and Puerto Ricans, and she doesn’t quite buy it. She depends on her brother, Bernardo, and his girlfriend, Anita, to teach her American ways.
Like the dancers, Jarrad Biron Green as Tony and Mary Joanna Grisso as Maria seem tentative at first. Green races through “Something’s Coming.” His voice is strong but unsure. His opening scene with Riff, played by Benjamin Dallas Redding, makes its point but seems more an exchange of information that a passage that will draw in the audience and make them concentrate on the play.
All of this changes at the dance. You see the attraction between Green and Grisso. It’s palpable. In a way that is necessary, you see Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria, fall in love. The balcony scene reinforces that feeling. There is a deep connection between these two. Green’s acting takes on an ingenuous grace. Tony turns from a strong gang leader and nascent adult having his first serious thoughts about maturity, to a man, or actually, a boy in love. Green shows Tony’s inexperience in being in love. He is driven by impulse. He seems at once shy and determined, confused and resolute. Maria is more than an infatuation, more than an expectation fulfilled. She is Tony’s passion, and Grisso becomes Green’s passion. There’s a sweetness to the reality. Green’s Tony isn’t the cock of the walk some actors play him to be. He does not have Bernardo’s suave confidence. The lack of finesse with which Green endows Tony, combined with the magnetic force that drives him to Maria and allows him to think of nothing or no one else sets the right tone of youthful ardor for the production. The same raw energy that goes into fighting is converted into a compulsion to love, not only to satisfying adolescent sexual desire, but to love.
Grisso returns the fire. Her Maria seems at once fragile and determined. She is the newcomer who is not interested in what her friends who have been in America present as convention. Maria has the spark to be different while being young and innocent enough that she is more challengingly defiant than rebellious.
Maria is totally inexperienced with men, and you see Grisso’s modesty as she and Tony find themselves together. Maria is clever of tongue, but she is lost in her own feelings of ardor. She, Tony, and the audience know this is the right match, and Green and Grisso, as much as Laurents and Sondheim, provide the information.
Again, the acting is sometimes rocky, but the intention is clear, and the genuineness Green and Grisso convey galvanizes show and sets this “West Side Story” on it way to being a bona fide tragedy in which the audience cares so much about Maria and Tony, there is no way of watching the star-crossed course of their love without being moved.
From her first moment, Michelle Alves lets you know that whatever else may happen on stage, fire and depth will be present when she is on it playing Anita.
Anita is historically the most riveting character in “West Side Story.” She is the reasonable one, the one who sees through the boys’ macho posing to the men underneath, the one who understands that whatever she must endure in New York, she is better off there than in San Juan. Anita gets to be a spitfire in the early dancing scenes, a wonderfully sardonic advocate for American life in Sondheim’s witty “America,” and the soul of the story when all goes wrong with Bernardo, Riff, and Tony at the rumble. Alves plays all of this with aplomb. She dances with zest, she jests with bite, she captures Anita’s tart frankness as well as her tart sexiness, and she provides dramatic intensity in tough and critical scenes with Anita and the Jets.
Benjamin Dallas Redding — The three names so many of these actors use indicate their youth and newness to professional show business. — grows constantly as Riff. In early scenes, you get the impression his acting is perfunctory, and it’s his dancing that counts. Like so much in this production, time brings growth. In Redding’s case, time brings some depth. His Riff becomes sharper, and his acting more pointed, more based in character than in Laurents’s lines. Redding is particularly sharp while leading the Jets in “Cool.” His scenes at the dance and at the rumble are excellent.
Maybe I’ve missed it in the dozens of “West Side Story” productions I’ve seen previous to this tour, but Anybody’s, the scruffy factotum who wants to be inducted into the Jets in spite of being a girl, is given a major dance bit and sings the opening bars of “Somewhere,” a song Bernstein composed entirely, music and lyrics. Rosalie Graziano distinguished herself from the show’s opening but proves to be a triple threat when she has her featured dance moment and responsibility for carrying the show’s most potent song.
Michael Spencer Smith — three names again! — is suave and romantic as Bernardo. His posture is always noble, his dancing always demonstrating Bernardo’s assurance and leadership.
Others who stand out are Justin Joseph Laguna — count those names — as a conscientious A-rab and a smooth dancer, Michael Ehlers as Action, Emilio Ramos as Chino, and Amanda Johns as Graziella.
Mark Fishman nicely shows his empathy and disgust as Doc, the owner of the drug store where the Jets hang. The one wrong note in the show is Matt Webster’s overly comic and out-of-period portrayal of Glad Hand, the teacher who monitors the high school dance. Webster is more like a visitor from a bad production of “Grease” than a character in “West Side Story.” From his hairdo to his posture, from his suit to the exaggerated voice he uses, Webster’s take is all wrong. I am inclined to blame Saint for imposing this comic turn on the actor, but whoever is responsible, the portrayal of the teacher has to be revised at the first possible instant. As it stands now, it is truly grating.
As in the 2009 Broadway revival from which this tour derives, some of the dialogue and lyrics in scenes featuring the Puerto Rican characters are done in Spanish. Purists or people who want to mouth along with Sondheim might mind, but in general, the choice is innocuous. It doesn’t add the authenticity I imagine was intended, but it doesn’t mar the flow of the story or the enjoyment of the show.
“West Side Story” runs through Sunday, Dec. 8 at the DuPont Theatre in the Hotel DuPont, 10th and Market Streets, in Wilmington, Del. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $85 to $35 and can be ordered by calling 302-656-4401 or going online to www.duponttheatre.com.
FYI: The Midtown Men, a quartet comprising four members of the original cast of “Jersey Boys,” comes to the DuPont for two Christmas concerts entitled “All Alone for Christmas,” at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, just as the national tour of “Jersey Boys” is spending its first weekend at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre. The Midtown Men are Christian Hoff, who received a Tony for playing Tommy in “Jersey Boys,” Daniel Reichard, Michael Longoria, and J. Robert Spencer. Tickets range from $60 to $50.