By Mary Boyle
Based on Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by America's original composer, Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by the amazing Stephen Sondheim, the 1957 Broadway Musical known as West Side Story has been an icon of American Theatre since its debut. In fact, when tickets for the production at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater went on sale this past June, it earned the highest grossing on-sale for a musical in the Quadracci Powerhouse, beating out last season's In the Heights. Considering the immense popularity of anything Lin Manuel Miranda has touched, that's really saying something. Now is your chance to see this great American work for yourself, as The Rep presents West Side Story.
The "West Side" in West Side Story is New York's Upper West Side. The time is the mid- 1950's, which means that the musical was modern at the time it was written in, and it was addressing a serious issue of the day: the largest migration of Puerto Ricans in New York history into a blue collar and mostly white neighborhood, along with the racism and violence that came with it. The story is told from the perspective of the two teenage gangs that fought for "territory" on the streets: the Sharks are the Puerto Ricans, and their leader is Bernardo (José-Luis Lopez, Jr.); the Jets are the white boys and their leader is Riff (Jacob Burns). From a Shakespearean standpoint, Bernardo is our Tybalt and Bernardo's younger sister, Maria (Liesl Collazo), is our Juliet, while Riff is our Mercutio and his idol and mentor, Tony (Jeffrey Kringer), is our Romeo, a fellow who is getting too old for the gang, and who has a feeling that something big is about to change in his life. Riff convinces Tony to meet at the dance, where he plans to formally challenge the Sharks to a final rumble to decide who will own the streets. Once there, time stands still when Tony and Maria find each other across a crowded dance floor. Of course, Bernardo makes sure his little sister is sent home, but that won't stop Tony from seeing her. Like Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers have their own balcony scene, but will they meet the same tragic end as their historic counterparts?
I have to admit: this was the first time I've seen a staging of West Side Story and, in the beginning, I was surprised at how dated it felt. The choreography, based on the original by Jerome Robbins but updated by Jon Rua, is front and center, and just as important as the music and lyrics; but, it has that "Fosse" feel which, combined with the improvised 50's "street language," makes it difficult to take seriously. Some of the gang members are not believable as teenagers, and that made it still more difficult to take seriously. Then, Tony sang "Maria" and I understood why people still come in droves to see this production. Interestingly, it seems as though fans of West Side Story fall into one of two categories: either they love the romance between Tony and Maria or they love the dancing between the gangs. I fall into the former category.
Given the current state of our society, it isn't hard to see that the struggles of 60 years ago are still our struggles today, which is a large part of what continues to make this musical relevant. Much of the music, which is directed by frequent Rep collaborator Dan Kazemi, is timeless. Songs like "America," "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere," written by the iconic Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeny Todd, Into the Woods), who made his Broadway debut with this production, are a part of the soundtrack of our culture, recognizable by almost anyone. The name "Officer Krupke," from the song, "Gee, Officer Krupke," played brilliantly by Bill Watson in The Rep's production, might even ring a bell.
Directed by Mark Clements, who is celebrating his 10th year as The Rep's Artistic Director, West Side Story is an ambitious production. Not only do you need "triple-threat" performers (they can sing, dance, and act), you need a lot of them. The Rep brilliantly chose to cast several talented young performers from the area: Reese Parish, who was recently seen in The Rep's Professional Training Institute's performance of Everybody and the First Stage Young Company's World Premiere of Girls in the Boat; Isabel Bastardo, who was also in Everybody, as well as the First Stage Young Company's production of As You Like It; and Terynn Erby-Walker and Georgina Pink, who were recently seen in Skylight Music Theatre's production of Hairspray. Milwaukee favorites Jonathan Wainwright and James Pickering are well cast as Lieutenant Schrank/Glad Hand and Doc, respectively. Many of the performers on the stage are making their Rep debut, including Jeffrey Kringer and Liesl Collazo as Tony and Maria, who are both exceptional as performers and believable as young adults. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Hope Endrenyl, who did a fabulous job as Anybodys.
West Side Story runs through October 27th at the Quadracci Theatre, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 66th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.