‘West Side Story’ at Signature Theatre (Review)

Fabulous! Potent! Forceful! Tender!

Let yourself fall in love again or for the first time with West Side Story.

From the first note of the orchestra’s prologue, then quickly met with the syncopated cool snaps of fingers under shadowy light; Matthew Gardiner’s confidently vigorous touch guides Signature Theatre’s West Side Story into a burst of dance, a boil of music and fully spirited characters that together are solidly physical and irresistible.

Kurt Boehm, Colleen Hayes, J. Morgan White, Max Clayton, Ryan Fitzgerald, Ryan Kanfer, Shawna Walker, and Maria Rizzo. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Kurt Boehm, Colleen Hayes, J. Morgan White, Max Clayton, Ryan Fitzgerald, Ryan Kanfer, Shawna Walker, and Maria Rizzo. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

As the audience, we are right with two rival city gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, battling for ownership of a street and turf. We the audience are quickly, like they are, on guard for what may be around the corner. And thankfully we are rewarded for being on our guards with such marvelous dancing and singing through “Jet Song,” “Cool,” “Something‘s Coming, Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “America.”

Soon enough we are in the midst of the purity of new love found at a high school dance smitten with the delicate moments between two star-crossed lovers, representing two different ethnic groups at odds with each other, who unexpectedly find each other. The two are Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso –  my God what a delicate singing voice she has, and with her petite stature and acting chops plays a believable virginal teen without a hint of irony) and Tony (a beautifully smooth-voiced Austin Colby who over the course of the production, adds some credible character dimensions to his too, well-scrubbed appearance).

Gardiner and his artistic collaborators, including Music Director Jon Kalbfleisch, Music Arranger Scott Ninmer, and Choreographer Parker Esse lift West Side Story’s tale of a 1950’s Romeo and Juliet into a less sweetened vision fitting our contemporary times. They seem to have reduced the visible symbols of the two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, to less notice; making the production less stuck in time and place. As for the weaponry mentioned or fighting, well, those are from another time. After all, the weapons list mentioned in West Side Story with book by Arthur Laurents is almost quaint in today’s world. The list of weapons mentioned includes fists, sticks, rocks, poles, cans, bricks, clubs, bottles, knives, and lastly a gun.

Highlights of the Signature production are many. The intimacy of the MAX is major plus for West Side Story with scenic design is by Misha Kachman.  Kachman’s vision, along with the sometimes ethereal, sometimes murky, sometimes happy lighting design of Jason Lyons, turned the MAX into a dark street under a highway, or a small high school gym floor, then a tiny bedroom or a balcony, with the blink of the eye. The sound design from Lane Elms was especially affective in creating loud echoes of fast running on metal city grates.

Frank Labovitz’s costume design provides each character, whether female or male, with a sense of who and what they represented. His costumes allowed full-tilt dancing to happen that was sexy, strong, and muscular and had my eyes wide open in awe at how high legs and feet can go up into the air above heads and hold place balancing on one foot.

Michael Graceffa, Ilda Mason, Natascia Diaz, Katie Mariko Murray, and Olivia Ashley Reed. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Michael Graceffa, Ilda Mason, Natascia Diaz, Katie Mariko Murray, and Olivia Ashley Reed. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The cast is top-flight. Natascia Diaz in her role as Anita, the older friend of Maria, is an element of substance. She adds a beating heart and heart-felt soul in her portrayal. Her presence onstage adds indescribable gravitas, snappy sass, well-placed mockery, and enveloping love. Diaz had me feel if I were ever in need, I could count on her to have my back. And her singing, as usual in America and the duet “A Boy Like That”/”I Have a Love” (with Grisso) is scintillating.

Max Clatyon as Riff (a Jet) and Sean Ewing as Bernardo (a Shark) are passionate, compelling and persuasive in this characterizations. They effectively perform as if they truly have no use for each other.

Now for some lines that jumped out differently than in the many other live theater productions I have enjoyed.  These lines seem much clearer to me than ever before thanks to Gardiner and his band of artists and artisans.

DOC: What does it take to get through to you? When do you stop? You

make this world lousy! 

ACTION: That’s the way we found it, Doc.

 Or this:

ANITA: You saw how they dance: like they have to get rid of something, quick. That’s how they fight.

Or this aimed at Anita before she is attacked:

She is too dark to pass.  Or this spoken about the character ANYBODYS who is told to get a skirt and be a girl.

West Side Story marks the 25th production of a Stephen Sondheim musical in Signature Theatre’s history. It is the largest show ever produced by Signature Theatre with a 30 member cast and 17 member orchestra.

Whether you are a veteran musical theater enthusiasts who knows each and every line of dialogue or lyric or are much newer to this great American musical theater classic, I just can’t imagine you won’t be enthralled with the passion, confidence, heat, and playfulness of Signature Theatre production of West Side Story.

And thank you to the original creative team of the late Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents (who only passed away a few years ago) and Stephen Sondheim. Your West Side Story remains a wonder of wonders. It dazzles still more than fifty years after it graced the New York stage and left critics and audiences with so much to consider about what musical theater could do to disrupt and agitate.

Yup, and to be clear even this grizzened old reviewer got goosebumps and snapped his way home.

MaryJoanna Grisso and Austin Colby. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
MaryJoanna Grisso and Austin Colby. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Signature’s production is a West Side Story for the ages.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

West Side Story plays through January 31, 2015 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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