“West Side Story” — inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” but set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during a period of fierce gang warfare between the white working-class kids of immigrants and more recently arrived Puerto Rican immigrants — opened on Broadway in 1957.
I still recall that some years ago, in a conversation with Harold Prince, the fabled Broadway director remarked that by today’s standards the musical would look “like a Sunday school picnic.” But were he to experience the emotionally charged ferocity generated by director Jim Corti’s revelatory revival now at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, there is no doubt he would change his assessment.
Corti, ever brainy and audacious, and his invaluable choreographer, William Carlos Angulo (who has served as assistant choreographer for several major Paramount and Drury Lane shows, but here makes an astonishing debut as the creative force behind the dancing), have remained fully faithful to the original. Yet at the same time they have made innovative choices in this near operatic musical (backed by a galvanic 19-piece orchestra led by music director Tom Vendafreddo) that feel completely of-the-moment. Every element of the show’s story — from gang violence and guns, to attitudes towards immigrants, to generational and cultural differences, to the lack of jobs and the strong-armed tactics of the police — easily synchronizes with today’s headlines.
How could this be possible?
To begin with, there is the genius of the show itself, with its score by Leonard Bernstein (a scorching blend of Latin, jazz and Broadway sounds); the ever-bristling lyrics, both slangy and poetic, by Stephen Sondheim; the quintessential “far from an ideal melting pot” book by Arthur Laurents, and the overall choreographic concept of Jerome Robbins, an intrinsic part of this musical but with significant differences. And, at this moment when outrage flares often and easily about ethnic imbalance in the theater, it is worth noting that these four Jewish artists brilliantly captured cultures not specifically “theirs.”
To his credit, Corti has tapped many supremely talented Latino performers (primarily highly trained dancers, who also happen to be fine actors and singers) to play the roles of the Sharks and their girlfriends, creating an instant authenticity. He also has used his particular magic to conjure an intense sense of intimacy in many crucial scenes — a major feat given the grand scale of the Paramount.
‘WEST SIDE STORY’ Highly recommended When: Through April 24 Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora Tickets: $41 – $56 Info: (630) 896-6666; www.ParamountAurora.com Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission
In fact, the intensity of the characters’ interaction brings a palpable hush to the audience. Whether in “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” or “Somewhere,” the love scenes between Maria (the ideally girlish Zoe Nadal, a formidable talent, who, in the true spirit of Juliet, projects a winning innocence paired with a fervent and determined drive for independence) and Tony (Will Skrip, with his fine tenor, tapping all the anguish of the Polish immigrant’s son who has tried to sever his ties with the Jets) are exquisitely rendered.
The relationship between Maria and her brother’s girlfriend, Anita (Mary Antonini, a force of nature who dances with firecracker energy, sings with great power, and pairs searingly with Nadal in “A Boy Like That”), is full of love and rage. And the chemistry between Anita and her great love, Bernardo (the fleet Alexander Aguilar), is winningly captured in their verbal duels.
Angulo’s choreography brings an electricity and heart to every scene, with a gorgeous use of hand gestures that can shift from realistic aggression to an almost prayer-like plea for peace. And the dance in the gym? A sizzling hot mambo, and a tense musical-chairs-like mixer, is heightened by costume designer Theresa Ham’s clever fashion “war,” as the Jets’ girls wear pedal pushers, while the Sharks’ girls arrive in ruffled dresses.
Corti’s fluid, swiftly moving staging is further strengthened by his large, ideally chosen cast of supporting actors (all with crystalline diction), including Jeff Smith as the Jets’ leader Riff; Aubrey Adams as the gender-confused Anybodys; Joe Dempsey as the jaded police investigator Schrank; Tom McElroy as Doc, the drugstore owner repulsed by the violence, and the full complement of gang members and their girls, who dance up a storm.
Set designer Kevin Depinet, who has made the Paramount his showcase, has created a starkly abstract-Cubist vision of New York, with upended chain link fences and fire escape windows dramatically lit by Jesse Klug.
In this season of countless productions designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it might just turn out to be that “West Side Story” is the most impressive tribute of them all.