Signature’s ‘West Side Story’ hits the right notes

Kurt Boehm (Diesel), Colleen Hayes (Velma), J. Morgan White (Snowboy), Max Clayton (Riff), Ryan Fitzgerald (Action), Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab), Shawna Walker (Pauline), and Maria Rizzo (Anybodys) in West Side Story at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.
Kurt Boehm (Diesel), Colleen Hayes (Velma), J. Morgan White (Snowboy), Max Clayton (Riff), Ryan Fitzgerald (Action), Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab), Shawna Walker (Pauline), and Maria Rizzo (Anybodys) in West Side Story at Signature Theatre.
Photo by Christopher Mueller

It would be easy to mistake the first three notes of Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story for a gang call. But it’s not. It’s a shofar blast – a t’kiah. The 1957 Broadway musical, based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t appear to have much Jewish content in it; it’s a love story played out amid gang warfare on the gritty streets of New York. The white working class Irish and Polish kids fighting for their turf against Puerto Rican newcomers; the Jets and Sharks standing in for Montagues and Capulets.

But all four of West Side Story’s creators were Jewish and even without a single Jewish character — though my companion on press night suggested that Doc, the kindhearted drugstore owner, could be Jewish — the deeply imbedded ideas of tolerance, harmony and justice that the musical espouses feel essentially Jewish, as does the refrain — perhaps a Jewish mother’s lament — in the number “A Boy Like That” that beseeches young Maria to “stick to your own kind” when it comes to marriage.

The original idea for updating Shakespeare’s tragic love story is credited to Broadway director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, who brought in composer Bernstein, writer Arthur Laurents and eventually a nearly untried lyricist, the then-young Stephen Sondheim. But that initial seedling of an idea wasn’t for a Sharks and Jets showdown. As Laurents wrote in a 1957 article for the New York Herald Tribune, initially Maria was supposed to be a nice Jewish girl and Tony, an Irish Catholic and it was familial drama not gang warfare. And the original title was to be East Side Story. That premise never took flight. Laurents blamed Jewish ballerina Nora Kaye for calling the idea “’Abie’s Irish Rose’ to music.” Robbins was one to break from the staid rules, not follow them, so the idea sat for years.

The resulting musical came to fruition more than six years later when street gangs and a new post-World War II youth culture of disaffection began to ferment in working class urban neighborhoods. The West Side Story we know draws from Robbins’ later proposition to move the setting from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side and use immigrant Puerto Ricans and working class whites for the Sharks and Jets.

Arlington’s Signature Theatre production, which runs through Jan. 31, reimagines the traditional theatrical production for its Max stage, which is configured with audience seating on three sides. Director Matthew Gardiner remains true to the script, but relies on a mostly bare stage with a few roll-on set pieces to add scenery, leaving much space for the heavy duty dancing. Most exciting is set designer Misha Kachman’s use of elevated catwalks ringing the theater, serving as fire escapes for the dancers and actors to enter and exit. This puts the dancing and street scenes right next to or above the audience, putting viewers just a few feet from a high-kicking leg or a mamboing couple for a truly visceral effect.

Choreographer Parker Esse had to redesign the indelible Robbins choreography for that three-quarter around stage. Yet, unlike his work last year on another Robbins classic, Fiddler on the Roof  at Arena Stage, this time he is on the mark. The stylized, angular jazz figures, the nervous ticks and twitches of the Jets on the loose, the sassy mambo, the calming and solidifying dream sequence they’re are all there with Robbins’ stamp visible. This dance-centric show is staged to effectively communicate the tension, speed, energy and emotional weight that Robbins intended — and the cast pulls it off without a missed step.

The 30-member cast, lead by fine-voiced Austin Colby as Tony and delicate but powerful Mary Joanna Grisso as Maria, accompanied by the sultry, spicy Natascia Diaz as Anita and smoldering Sean Ewing as Bernardo, powers the action throughout.

John Kalbfleisch draws the gorgeous detail from a sixteen piece ensemble of musicians who fill out the incomparable Bernstein overture and score. Frank Labovitz’s costumes remain true to period, down to the non-name brand tennis shoes the Jets jump and kick in and the swooshy, vibrant dresses the Sharks women wear.

West Side Story, which had its tryout in Washington at the National Theater before heading to Broadway more than 50 years ago, remains one of musical theater’s most perfect musicals — unrivaled for its score, choreography, book and lyrics. As librettist Laurents penned at the time of the work’s Broadway premiere: “We all knew what we did not want. Neither formal poetry nor flat reportage; neither opera nor split-level musical comedy numbers; neither zippered-in ballets nor characterless dance routines. We didn’t want newsreel acting, blue-jean costumes or garbage can scenery any more than we wanted soapbox pounding for our theme of young love destroyed by a violent world of prejudice.”

He wrote: “What we did want was to aim at a lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality.” The result is a visionary show imbued with grace and grittiness striving for its utopian vision — the act two dream sequence — in the face of hard-edged reality and heartbreak. Signature Theatre’s production hits all the right notes at a time when our nation once again needs to hear this still-relevant message of tolerance, sung through Bernstein’s beautiful music and danced by Robbins’ unforgettable choreography.

West Side Story, through Jan. 31, Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call (703) 820-9771 or visit for tickets and information.

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