Chicago Theatre Review
The Most Beautiful Sound I Ever Heard…
West Side Story – Paramount Arts
Back in the 1950’s when newspapers were just beginning to cover tragic stories of teenage gangs and turf wars, a new show evolved from these events that would forever change the face of the American Musical. Also noteworthy was that this new theatrical form resulted from a collaboration between artistic geniuses Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (score), Jerome Robbins (direction and choreography) and, a new kid on the block, Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).
Loosely based upon Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” the show was considered controversial. It was dark and edgy, characters fought and died and it didn’t have the expected happy ending found in every musical comedy of that era. Moreover, the show was vocally challenging and featured more demanding choreography than most musicals. It was, however, an almost instant hit and won Tony Awards in 1958 for sets and choreography. Since that year “West Side Story” has toured nationally and internationally, become a staple of educational, regional and summer stock theatres and became a much-loved Oscar-winning film. It was revived by Laurents in 2009 with only a few changes to the original script. Most importantly was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (“Hamilton”) Spanish translations of the songs sung by the Puerto Rican characters, making the production truly multi-cultural and more authentic.
Theatrical maestro Jim Corti has again re-imagined this classic musical in a brand new production that closes Paramount’s astounding fifth season, quite literally with a bang. An awe-inspiring evening of theatre, featuring a talented cast of astounding actor/singer/dancers, gives the audience a heart-pounding production of pathos and entertainment. Fans who know this show by heart won’t be disappointed and will find a few new, surprises in the staging of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America” and “Somewhere.” And for those lucky patrons who are discovering this American classic for the first time, it’s truly worthy of the standing ovation it received opening night.
First and foremost is Bernstein’s gorgeous score, filled with lush, romantic ballads, such as the beautiful “Maria,” “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” It also features novelty numbers of equal opulence, like “I Feel Pretty,” “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Then there are the 1950’s jazz-infused dance numbers performed in the “Prologue,” “Cool” and “Dance at the Gym.” Audiences will find it difficult to resist tapping their feet or swooning over such a musical score, which is why the recordings of the original production, the film and the 2009 revival have been award-winning best-sellers; and why these songs are constantly sung by opera, pop and cabaret artists all over the world.
Next is Jerome Robbins‘ dazzling choreography, reimagined here by William Carlos Angulo and performed with passion and precision. The “Prologue,” “Dance at the Gym,” “America,” “The Rumble” and the dream ballet, “Somewhere” are breathtaking. Besides combining classical ballet, jazz, Latin ballroom and other styles, a collaboration with R&D Choreography (Victor Bayona and Richard Gilbert) incorporates some astounding, very realistic violence design into the dances, make each number more exciting than the next.
Jim Corti’s direction is dynamic and emotional, without ever becoming maudlin. There are a few scene transitions that could be tightened, but the main action of the story flows beautifully. One of Mr. Corti’s exciting choices is to meld the carnage of Act I’s rumble with Act II’s lighter opening number, “I Feel Pretty.” Usually the second half of the musical begins with this cheery, upbeat ditty, seemingly forgetting that the previous act just ended with a violent rumble that left two of the main characters dead. Mr. Corti allows his audience their short break, but then picks up precisely where he left off. Between verses of the chirpy number (wisely moved from Maria’s bedroom to the dress shop), sirens are heard and bodies are seen being removed from under the viaduct. It’s a bold and innovative move.
Another of Corti’s touches involves the visceral quality found in William Carlos Angulo’s choreography. In almost every dance there are more athletic, violent moves, from a culture no longer able to contain their civility and anger. From the Prologue to the always exciting “Tonight” quintet, there are moves that appear aerobic and more grounded than seen in most productions of this show. “Gee, Officer Krupke” is particularly gritty and organic, instead of being the typical comic relief.
Even the manner with which Mr. Corti concludes his musical is quite different and controversial. Without giving away too much, most productions end with a small glimmer of hope. Not at the Paramount. Reflecting the never-ending prejudice and violence that infects today’s culture, this director’s production pushes the envelope by ending his musical without offering any real promise of a better world. At least, not for these characters. That choice, this production seems to say, is up to each one of us. Bravo, Jim Corti!
The entire cast is uniformly excellent with distinguished performances by Mary Antonini as Anita and Zoe Nadal as Maria. Both actresses offer superstar vocal power. Ms. Antonini’s Anita is the expected hot, Latin spitfire, but it’s her likability, her gifted vocals and her tirelessly energetic dancing ability that really wows the audience. Will Skrip’s Tony is All American good-looking and vocally commanding. In his scenes with Ms. Nadal, Mr. Skrip is mostly in control and exudes the real chemistry between the two. Ms. Nadal’s Maria, while demonstrating an impressive vocal range, doesn’t radiate the same intense passion as Tony.
Ryan McBride’s Action is, true to his character’s name, continually in motion and filled with anger, as is Jeff Smith’s enthusiastic, charismatic gang leader, Riff. Along with Alexander Aguilar’s suave, handsome Bernardo, Anthony Sullivan, Jr.’s shyly romantic Chino and Aaron Patrick Craven’s macho Diesel, there’s Aubrey Adams’ heartfelt Anybodys, Liam Quealy’s powerfully-charged Big Deal and Jonny Stein’s innocent Baby John. Every actor in this cast is an outstanding, talented ensemble member. Tom McElroy is poignant and impassioned as Doc, Joe Dempsey brings a new level of smarminess and bigotry to Lt. Shrank and Larry Baldacci makes the most of his frustrated social director, Glad Hand.
Heaps of credit must go to Kevin Depinet for his expansive, two-level scenic design that incorporates vertical sections of chain link fencing, tilted at 45 degree angles, to create an enclosed environment of skyscrapers and barriers. This was New York City’s Upper West Side in the 50’s. The Paramount stage is enormous, yet Depinet’s claustrophobic setting traps his the actors inside a concrete prison. Jesse Klug’s impressive lighting design both provides the darkness and the bright hope that appears every so often in this musical. Theresa Ham’s costumes, especially the Latin ladies’ floral print, crinolined dresses, are perfect. And Tommy Vendafreddo’s musical direction and rich, full pit orchestra makes every number in Bernstein’s glorious score soar up to the heavens.
This splendid production deserves to be seen, if only to hear Bernstein’s beautiful score played by a full orchestra and to behold a professional, Broadway caliber cast of talented performers acting, singing and dancing their hearts out. Whether experiencing this musical for the first time or revisiting this masterpiece once again, like an old friend, this is one terrific production that’ll definitely live in every audience member’s heart. Quite definitely, this show is “the most beautiful sound I ever heard…”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 19-April 24 by the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-896-6666 or by going to www.theparamounttheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com