There is at least one production of WEST SIDE STORY playing somewhere nearby every couple of years, and they tend to have a few things in common. Sometimes, in fact, I think when I’ve seen one I’ve really seen them all.
There is an unfortunate tendency for the Sharks and Jets to be so pretty that you’d expect them to cancel their rumble for fear of breaking a nail. There is a tall, generically handsome Tony and a pretty Maria who usually does not look or sound remotely Puerto Rican – both of whom have those lovely voices that sometimes make the show sound like a concert. There’s the Jerome Robbins choreography – which was groundbreaking 50 years ago, but which I frankly do not care for – and a Latina Anita who gets to do virtually all the heavy lifting, ethnically speaking.
Those of you who have wearied of the same old WEST SIDE STORY might just want to take a look at this one, because there are plenty of differences here – virtually all of which are improvements.
Danny Henning makes a slight, even slightly goofy Tony, lending the role a gentle, almost angelic, sweetness that is rarely found in a romantic lead. His vocals are nice – pretty and emotional rather than grand – and he delivers them with authentic feeling. When he’s not singing, he is just as believable, delivering every line as though the words were his own, and making the kind of connection with Colleen Johnson’s Maria that is rare in almost any show.
Johnson gives her role a genuine innocence and a real accent, playing an actual Maria rather than a stock ingenue. Her singing also sounds really good – for a show where the roles are filled by "actors" rather than "singers," she and Henning both actually sound amazing – but she emotes every lyric and every line with such heartfelt directness, she ends up giving a truly realistic performance.
The Johnson-Henning scenes, especially those surrounding "One Hand, One Heart" and "Somewhere," are laden with emotional richness that is a palpable thing. The latter number – which is often delivered upstage on a platform and in a very presentational style – is done completely down center, just three feet or so from the front row. The impact of this in-your-face staging, at least when acted so incredibly well by these fantastic performers, is simply profound. We can see their Tony and Maria clutching at each other in grief and love, locked together and tearful, and every single facial nuance is right in front of us. Director James Beaudry took a fantastic risk by allowing the audience this kind of intimacy, but Johnson and Henning come through for him in amazing ways.
Other breaks with tradition include gang members (and their "girls") that look like they could actually be part of ethnic street gangs in 1957, a bullish Bernardo (Michael J. Yarnell) who practically oozes machismo from every brooding pore, and a Doc (Robert Maher) who isn’t so overtly kindly that you have the urge to slap him. All these changes are also improvements, and they help make the story engrossing ina way it has never been for me.
Of course, some things are the same, too.
Shannon Boland does make a great Anita, who is plenty Latina and smokin’ hot, and that is one thing I’m glad Beaudry kept as a traditional element. Boland’s singing and dancing and accented English are all dead-on, and she really knows how to work a red dress and a pair of heels.
Another element that has not changed is much of the choreography, which still has that annoying circling and finger-snapping that seems to go on forever. Beaudry and Zachary Gray have adapted the original dances without losing the signature style, and the company – supposedly "actors" instead of "dancers" – do it well. Any small amount of precision that is missing only reinforces the realistic presentation of so much of the rest of the show.
Though I didn’t really want to see another WEST SIDE STORY – which I didn’t, actually, since this project is a new take on the classic musical – I am certainly glad to have experienced the Timber Lake Playhouse production.
A summer stock show with only a few performances left, this WEST SIDE STORY is well worth making sure you get to see it.