Review: ‘West Side Story’ at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in Center Valley, PA

In one of the collections of his theatre lyrics, Stephen Sondheim writes that while most people regard West Side Story as being about “racial prejudice and urban violence,” its actual purpose was to raise the craft of musical theatre to a new high: “It’s about the blending of book, music, lyrics and, most important, dance into the seamless telling of a story.”

The Jets claim their territory. Photo by Lee A. Butz.
The Jets claim their territory. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Nearly sixty years after its premiere, West Side Story holds up astonishingly well. The collaboration of Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), and Jerome Robbins (choreography) is as dazzling as ever; aside from some dated language and formality, it could have been created yesterday. And the issues it addresses – yes, the aforementioned racial prejudice and urban violence – remain vital.

The Shark girls with Bernardo: Karli Dinardo, Christine Baglivio, Julian Alvarez, Isabel Garcia, Gaby Gamache and Taryn Gilbert. Photo by Lee A. Butz.
The Shark girls with Bernardo: Karli Dinardo, Christine Baglivio, Julian Alvarez, Isabel Garcia, Gaby Gamache, and Taryn Gilbert. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Director Dennis Razze’s production crackles with vitality from its first scene and rarely lets up. (Although the comic number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” performed by the members of the Jets gang, needs more looseness for its jokes to land.)

Stephen Casey has restaged Robbins’ iconic choreography, and the ensemble carries out the well-known steps with precision and passion. The show is stocked with energetic numbers like “Cool,” led forcefully by Nathan Madden as Riff, and “America,” which benefits from Karli Dinardo’s sassy and sparkling turn as Anita.

Tony (Austin Colby) and Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso). Photo by Lee A. Butz.
Tony (Austin Colby) and Maria (MaryJoanna Grisso). Photo by Lee A. Butz.

Austin Colby and MaryJoanna Grisso play the star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria. Colby is sweet and sincere, with a pleasant tenor, and he’s well-matched with Grisso, who gives Maria a giddy exuberance. When they first meet while dancing at the local gym, they’re barely able to look away from each other – and the pang of their attraction becomes more poignant when they’re torn apart by tragedy. Thanks in large part to their performances, the final scene of West Side Story has a haunting dramatic power.

Nathan Diehl’s 15-piece orchestra plays Bernstein’s score with spirit, while Steve TenEyck’s sets make good use of projections as backdrops. Eric T. Haugen uses changes in lighting effectively to punctuate the verses of the “Jet Song.”

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

West Side Story plays through Sunday, July 3, 2016, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, performing at the Labuda Center’s Main Stage – 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, PA, on the Campus of DeSales University. For tickets, call (610) 282-WILL, or purchase them online.