Unfortunately Director David Saint fails to head the advice offered in Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics and the non-equity touring production of West Side Story, currently playing at the National Theatre through June 8th is an uneven mix of gorgeously nuanced performances from the female leads and cartoonish, over-the-top performances from most of the men. Fortunately for the audience, the material itself with a gorgeous score by Leonard Bernstein transcends many of these missteps to provide a reasonably entertaining evening.
The touring production reflects the 2009 Broadway revival by Director and Book Author Arthur Laurents. There is more authenticity in that the Sharks speak some Spanish when alone together and “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That/I Have A Love” now are bilingual. Saint, following the lead of Laurents’ production, is clearly going for a grittier vibe and showing the streetwise toughness of the rival Sharks and Jets. Unfortunately, grittier in this production sometimes comes off as merely shocking or vulgar, particularly in an updated (and not improved) “Gee Officer Krupke” and the graphic depiction of gang rape in the second act.
Despite these flaws, there are some lovely moments in this production of West Side Story. Every one of the women in the cast is marvelous. MaryJoanna Grisso is a lovely Maria, beautifully carrying the arc from giddy girl to tragic survivor. Her Maria is impossibly young, yet stubborn and willful as well. She brings a sense of infectious joy to the beautifully sung “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Grisso is joined by Gabriela Albo, Suki Lopez, and Dana Hunger for a giddy, smile-inducing “I Feel Pretty/Me Siento Hermosa” that doesn’t need an English translation to remind one of the wondrous heights of first love. Grisso’s duets with Tony (Jarrad Biron Green) are moving and there is chemistry between them that lifts the love story from the predictable to something much more interesting.
As Anita, Michelle Alves is sexy, sassy, and commanding. She is also an excellent dancer. Alves and the Shark girls set the bar high with a simmering “America” full of shine, sass, and high impact dancing. In terms of plot and character development, it is unclear why Anybodys, the tomboy who desperately wants to be a Jet, suddenly has the solo in “Somewhere” – West Side Story’s most iconic number – but Rosalie Graziano delivers the number with a pure and haunting soprano voice. The Jet girls are sultry and forceful – if they were in charge the turf war would be over right now – particularly the blonde, leggy Graziella, played by Taylor Conant. She shows so much personality that she threatens to steal any scene she is in.
The dancing, recreated by Joey McKneely after the original Jerome Robbins choreography, is fantastic. The young ensemble is clearly invested in the choreography and brings enthusiasm, heat, and high kicks to the dancing in the “Prologue,” “Cool,” and “Dance at the Gym.” Matt Webster makes the most of his cameo as Glad Hand at the gym, with a comic and entertaining reinterpretation of the utterly clueless social worker adult in charge of keeping the simmering tensions of the gangs under control at the dance.
The adult characters have always been written to be one-dimensional – outsiders to the central story. As Doc, Mark Fishback convincingly portrays moral outrage and despair at a world gone mad in which gang violence is the norm. Skip Pipo is appropriately smarmy and threatening as the bigoted Lt. Schrank, who fuels the misunderstanding and violence between the gangs.
Unfortunately, the misunderstanding and violence between the rival gangs never truly reaches its boiling point, in part because the actors – with the exception of Benjiman Dallas Redding as Riff and Michael Spencer Smith as Bernardo – never seem to find nuances in the characters they are portraying. They are solid and engaging dancers, but never seem to rise above being a “type” – and whether that is a director or an actor choice, the show loses its urgency by not making us care about the fate of the gang members.
James Youmans’ scenic design is spare and suits the action of West Side Story perfectly. His bridges, fire escapes, and backdrops recreate the grimy urban scene of the 1950s.
At 57 years old, West Side Story continues to prove its relevance and to impress with a soaring, gorgeous score that is unrivaled to this day in American musical theatre.
Running Time: Approximately Two and a half hours, with a 20-minute intermission.
West Side Story plays through Sunday, June 8, 2014 at the National Theatre– 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, in Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 628-6161, or purchase them online.