Chicago Theatre Review
The Air is Humming…
West Side Story – Drury Lane Oakbrook
It’s been a while since the Chicago area has enjoyed a local production of this American classic, a show that reinvented musical theatre when it opened on Broadway back in the 1950’s. This Tony Award-winning show is notable for so many reasons. It marked the collaboration between several theatrical geniuses of Broadway’s Golden Age: Arthur Laurents, for his poetic book, based upon Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet;” Leonard Bernstein’s revolutionary, beautiful new score, which includes so many memorable songs; Jerome Robbins for his exciting, balletic choreography, as well as his dynamic direction; and the introduction of Stephen Sondheim’s talent to the theater world, for his gorgeous, evocative lyrics. It also happens to be one of the most moving, stunningly beautiful musicals ever created, especially when embodied in such a well-acted, sung and danced production as this.
Those lucky patrons who may be discovering this American classic for the first time will understand why it earned its place in theatre history. Fans who know this show by heart will not be disappointed and will even find a few new surprises in such numbers as the “Prologue,” “The Rumble,” “Dance at the Gym,” “America” and “Somewhere.” Even lighter numbers, like “I Feel Pretty” and “Officer Krupke,” which provide some comic relief from the show’s many dramatic moments, feel fresh and new. The reason this exquisite production is so wonderful is multifold. First and foremost is Rachel Rockwell’s superb casting and contemporary-feeling staging and direction that feels edgier than ever before. Second is triple-threat Rhett Guter, doing double-duty playing Riff and providing inspired choreography, which is sometimes lyrical, often acrobatic and antagonistic. Next is Roberta Duchak’s wonderfully sensitive musical direction, along with Ben Johnson’s lavish orchestra that caresses Bernstein’s beautiful score like a velvet glove. And finally, of course, there’s the incredibly multitalented 31-member cast, supported by a crew of brilliant backstage artists, all of whom bring this show to life.
The way Leonard Bernstein’s lush score meshes with Laurents’ book is perfection. His score, part soaring ballad, part jazz-infused dance orchestration, is wonderful, especially as played and sung by Drury Lane’s musicians and performers. That might be enough; but Rhett Guter’s extraordinary, well-executed choreography enhances Bernstein’s music and Sondheim’s lyrics even further, extending every instrumental moment. It’s visceral and raw, filled with emotion and poetry. A perfect example is the lovely dream ballet, “Somewhere,” that’s equally breathtaking and heartbreaking. Combinations of classical ballet, jazz, Latin ballroom and other styles make each number more exciting than the next. Bernstein’s gorgeous music has never sounded better. The score is filled with rich, romantic ballads, such as the beautiful “Maria,” “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart,” as well as novelty numbers of equal opulence, like “I Feel Pretty,” “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” There are also the 1950’s jazz-infused dances found in the “Prologue,” “Cool” and “Dance at the Gym.”
The entire cast is uniformly excellent, with particularly distinguished performances given by Michelle Aravena as Anita and Christina Nieves as Maria. Both actresses bring thoughtful performances to their roles while offering superstar vocal power. Ms. Aravena’s Anita is the requisite Latin spitfire, but it’s her humor and tirelessly energetic dancing skills that really wow the audience. Ms. Nieves, so wonderful in Paramount’s “In the Heights,” is a lovely Maria, whose journey from innocence to maturity provides the arc for this story. Jim DeSelm’s Tony is All American good-looking and vocally commanding. Not only a fine singer but an accomplished young actor, Mr. DeSelm can now add Tony to his resume of impressive portrayals.
Adrian Aguilar’s Action is, true to his character’s name, continually in motion and filled with appropriate rage, as is Rhett Guter’s well-played, macho gang leader, Riff. Along with Lillian Castillo’s very funny Rosalia, Lucas Segovia’s handsome, skillfully danced Bernardo, Tommy Rivera-Vega’s shy, anxious Chino and Emma Rosenthal’s sensitively played Anybodys these actors stand out amidst an ensemble of talented singer/dancers. Roger Mueller, as father figure Doc, personifies all the empathy and frustration found in most adults for teenagers, especially within this violent world. And as Lt. Schrank, Brett Tuomi ably typifies those bigoted, bullying authority figures America has grown to recognize and deplore.
Drury Lane has followed up its definitive, eye-opening production of “Camelot” with this high-strung, deeply moving production of yet another classic of the musical stage. Although some moments push the envelope with an uncomfortable, stark realism not usually associated with this musical, there’s so much to appreciate and admire. Featuring Rachel Rockwell’s polish and driving direction, Rhett Guter’s energetic and elegiac choreography and Roberta Duchak’s outstanding musical direction, supported by Scott Davis‘ massive, urban-inspired scenic design and Yael Lubetzky’s evocative, atmospheric lighting, this entire company sets the air humming, and audiences will recognize that something great is coming.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 15-March 29 by Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-530-0111, TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.drurylane.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.