Bigotry is one of the uglier passions we acquire, since it leaves no room for discussion or understanding. Hate based on nationality, religion, or sexual preference is an absolute and, as a result, can feed on itself endlessly. Under the circumstances, it's always surprising to realize that one of musical theater's most magical productions, staged as a quasi-ballet with many lyrical songs, is at heart an exploration of unbending prejudice.
Sure, West Side Story is a retelling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in the squalid tenements and gloomy underpasses of New York City in the 1950s. But the soul of the conflict is embedded in the vitriolic mistrust between native-born Americans and the Puerto Ricans who have recently moved into their ramshackle neighborhood. Rarely have a book (Arthur Laurents), music (Leonard Bernstein), and lyrics (Stephen Sondheim) combined with such force to deliver the tale of a doomed romance. And in this production at Porthouse Theatre, while many individual characters and scenes work splendidly, there are enough irritating glitches to somewhat tarnish the glow.
Just a couple years shy of the 50th anniversary of its Broadway opening night, West Side Story still has the capacity to thrill. On the face of it, the idea of two chain-, pipe-, and zip-gun-toting gangs -- the Sharks and the Jets -- leaping around to express their surging emotions sounds like a really bad concept. But the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, which has been faithfully adapted for the smallish Porthouse stage by John C. Crawford, has always rippled with muscularity. In this show, dance became the perfect vehicle to communicate the depths of antagonism and the heights of new love between Jet stud Tony and Shark siren Maria.
Our star-crossed lovers meet at a gym dance and are immediately smitten, since Tony is outgrowing his gang and Maria never bought into hers -- even though her brother, Bernardo, is the leader of the Sharks and her best friend, Anita, is Bernardo's girl. On the Jet side, Tony's buddy Riff (a lithe, amusing, and pompously pompadoured David Gregory) is now gangbanger-in-chief. It becomes clear that the two urban battalions harbor a deep mutual hatred. And you don't need to be a Shakespeare scholar to predict that Tony and Maria's dreams, along with the lives of others, will be crushed in the violence to come.
Director Terri Kent, a master at staging iconic American musicals, is only partially successful in her casting here. On the plus side, Kayce Cummings is tender and touching as Maria, employing her powerful and evocative voice to lift songs such as "Tonight" into the stratosphere. Just as good is Sandra Emerick, who ignites a torrent of energy in the mocking ditty "America" along with her excellent Puerto Rican girl posse and seethes with hostility after being assaulted by the Jets in the second act. Jim Weaver has the perfect look for Bernardo and boils over in animosity at times, but Stephen Brockway is too soft as Tony, lacking an undercurrent of dangerous strength that would come naturally to the ex-leader of a gang. In addition, his delicate tenor is more mild than macho, and it disappears almost completely in the lower registers.
In supporting roles, the Jets fail to register strong individual identities and seem to loosen up only in the comic-relief song "Gee, Officer Krupke." Andrew Mills is gymnastically adept as Action, but he just blends in with the others when he's not dancing. And in the role of the tiny tomboy Anybodys, the Jet hanger-on who can flit about like a shadow, Kelly R. Simmons is almost as big as Tony. Among the Jet mammas, Tessa Waldheger sparks some funny lines as the girl with 'tude named Graziella. As a group, the Sharks have less to do, with the exception of Chino. In that role, Ernie Gonzalez is sweetly shy at the start, but the credibility of his impact on the unfolding events is weakened when he doesn't respond with blind rage at Maria after she exhibits more interest in the post-rumble fate of Tony than in her own brother.
Director Kent, choreographer Crawford, and musical director Melissa Fucci help the company manage this challenging show with aplomb -- especially in the reprise of "Tonight," when all factions are represented onstage at the brink of tragedy, as well as in the second-act dream sequence. But some of this hard work is undermined by a 14-piece orchestra that occasionally sounds like a four-piece combo. With few string instruments, the famous "Jet Song" felt awkwardly threadbare instead of invigorating. Orchestras in musicals should be like umpires in baseball: The less you notice them, the better.
Still, this Story never seems to get old, and this Porthouse production has enough sterling moments to satisfy anyone's craving for classic musical fare.
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