Unlike any musical I’ve ever seen, this current production of West Side Story is somewhat of a revelation. Featuring dance numbers that further the story rather than breaking from it, a cast of characters that, while likeable, aren’t good guys, and even major character deaths at moments you’d never expect, this is the type of production that proves there are no rules in art.
riff on Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story tells the story of two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The tension is bad from the start, but when Tony, a Jet, falls in love with Maria, the sister of a Shark, the drama is escalated. Taking place in New York, the Jets are the locals with a sense of entitlement. They feel that New York is their turf, and they aren’t about to let the Puerto Rican Sharks take over. It’s an interesting dynamic to watch an entire story unfold without a real rooting interest. In essence, the entire story is fueled by each gang’s racism, and as such, that makes it very difficult to pick sides.
While I was completely surprised by the story, I was even more blown away by the execution of that story. There is a traditional narrative, and yet, it is conveyed at great length through dance. There is real insight into these people simply by their movements. There are long stretches of brilliantly choreographed routines, beautiful to watch and never superfluous. There isn’t a wasted moment, with every gesture providing subtle nuance into the thoughts and motivations of the characters. It doesn’t hurt that the music they are dancing to is perfectly written to capture these moments.
The orchestra is practically a character unto itself in this production. The music is constant, and always propelling the story forward. The score is fantastic; beautiful when it needs to be, intense when the moment calls for it, and even funny on occasion. It’s never overbearing, but it is a constant presence. The songs themselves are almost universally terrific, with highlights including “Maria,” “Tonight,” America,” etc. I’ve never seen any version of West Side Story, and yet I found myself recognizing almost all of the music. That just goes to show how iconic these numbers really are.
The only critique I have of this production is Kyle Harris’ performance as Tony. This is a lead role, and while he did an admirable job, I didn’t entirely believe him in the part. It seems like a very complicated performance, and at times, Harris seemed to be struggling. On the flip side, Ali Ewoldt did a brilliant job as Maria. She was completely convincing, able to convey lovestruck as well as devestation in equal measure. Her beautiful voice didn’t hurt, either.
This is a truly gritty production, with a darkness that I wasn’t expecting. The conflict feels genuine, and while they may be battling it out through dance, the threat always feels real. The production design really captures the edge of the story, with a lot of open space, harsh lighting, and minimal sets. This isn’t a flashy production by any means, and that is perfect for the tone of the story.
I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy the play this much. I’ve never seen any version of West Side Story before, and I didn’t know what I was about to see going in. I definitely wasn’t expecting this. A really unusual musical experience, I can’t recommend it enough. West Side Story is playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts now through September 18.