Book by Arthur Laurents
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Music Direction Roberta Duchak
Choreography by Rhett Guter
Produced by Drury Lane Theatre
West Side Story Cruel, but Sophisticated
Theatre artists who claim to place great value on innovation and relevance often demand 1950s and 60s musicals justify themselves. The idea is the scores are antiquated and the musical genre is inherently shallow. After seeing my first production, I think West Side Story falls into that a little, but really is far better than the stereotype, and given its role in expanding what commercial audiences accepted, it’s ironic the show is so often lumped in with what it was rebelling against. Drury Lane’s latest production, directed by Rachel Rockwell, contains exquisite dancing, a peppy orchestra, and moments of genuine tenderness and outrage in this still modern adaptation of the much-derided yet beloved Romeo and Juliet.
The show opens with a famous dance sequence of the Puerto Rican Sharks and ethnic, newly-considered white Jets patrolling their territory in a New York neighborhood. These teenage gangs don’t seem to be involved in much criminal activity beyond pre-emptive hate crimes. On this particular day, Shark leader Bernardo (Lucas Segovia) wounds a Jet, and the Jet leader Riff (Rhett Guter) decides drastic action is required. That night at a school dance, he will challenge Bernardo to a show-down. For back-up, he requests the assistance of his former lieutenant Tony (Jim DeSelm), who now works at a drugstore. Tony doesn’t want to get involved with the gangs again, but he does go to the dance, and there falls instantly in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Christina Nieves).
You probably know how this ends, although it’s not exactly like Romeo and Juliet. I started engaging with the show during DeSelm’s “Something’s Coming,” in which he sang the high notes beautifully and delivered Tony’s sense of wonderment at life. DeSelm is very likable, and formed an easy connection with Nieves. Their scene fantasizing about their wedding seemed like joking between a real couple. She has the perfect sense of humor for Maria in the song “I Feel Pretty,” as well as a voice to match DeSelm’s, but can also channel grief and rage. Segovia, a member of the Joffrey Ballet, is a quite sympathetic Bernardo who accomplishes gigantic leaps. Laurents’s humanization of his Tybalt character came at the expense of flattening his Mercutio, but Guter still seems like a compassionate leader of his besieged friends, and he choreographed the passionate dance sequences. The entire casts’ jumps and whirls are spectacular, and create the violent energy of the show. In the song “America,” Michelle Aravena as Anita leads the Shark girls in a dance-off with Rosalia (Lillian Castillo) over the benefits and draw-backs of living in a rich but racist country. It was the perfect example of using dance to communicate a serious theme.
Romeo and Juliet is as much about the toxic culture the adults passed on to their kids as it is about love, and I think West Side Story’s writers and Drury Lane’s director had a similar idea for their modern interpretation. It could be because the press opening was the same day Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the New York state general assembly, was arrested on federal corruption charges, or the way Laurents eliminated the lovers’ parents from the story and represented the government much more negatively than Shakespeare had, but the most visceral moments for me were those involving Lieutenant Schrank (Bret Tuomi) and Officer Krupke (John Gray). This is a story about a stupid, brutal state that is complicit in its peoples’ poverty, and that harasses young men under the belief they have a right to be nowhere but prison. One way the show is dated, besides the characters’ ridiculous names, is that it feels shocked by the existence of teen gangs, let alone that they would ever consider using guns. The Jets themselves mockingly say they’re depraved because they’re deprived, and it is true they are capable of terrible things, but deprivation comes in more ways than economic, and sarcasm has a way of covering for truth. The show is still a decent mouthpiece for youth frustration and how oppressors tend to create the monsters they’re afraid of.
Much credit for the night’s success must go to director Rachel Rockwell, for breathing life into tradition. Scott Davis’s scenic design of a train track proscenium and chain-link fences made this show into a confining underworld. David Woolard and Rick Jarvie’s costume and wig designs aided the ensemble in creating distinctive characters. The nine musicians under Ben Johnson’s conducting played Bernstein’s music as rousingly and precisely as it has ever sounded. This production proves that West Side Story is still an entertaining and artistic piece of theatre, and is likely to be as good as any production of it a person could ever hope to see.
Reviewed January 22, 2015
For more information, see West Side Story’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Drury Lane Theatre and Conference Center, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. Tickets are $45-60 with discounts for students and seniors. Call 630-530-0111 or visit www.drurylane.com. Plays through March 29. Shows are Wednesdays at 1:30 pm, Thursdays at 1:30 and 8:00 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 5:00 pm and 8:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm. Running time is two hours and twenty-five minutes, with one intermission.