2007 was the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story. The NPR report I listened to at the time indicated that there had been – ten years ago – 50,000 productions of the show. What this means is that, as you read this, there is a high likelihood that someone is singing, or preparing to sing, “I just met a girl named Maria,” in Finnish, Mandarin, Urdu, Nahuatl. The story of the Sharks vs the Jets, the Puerto Ricans vs the White Boys, the story of love overcoming, or trying to overcome, ugly ethnic strife, resonates throughout the world, not just in America. No other piece of music theater has this kind of reach. As our beautiful blue planet soars into another 365 day orbit around its star, WSS marches on, inspiring millions of theater lovers everywhere. Me included.
“Gee,” I said to my lovely companion. “I hope they don’t mess it up.”
They didn’t. The Ordway production (which runs through April 16, a co-production between the Ordway and the prodigious Teatro Del Pueblo) preserves Leonard Bernstein‘s exquisite music, Stephen Sondheim‘s beyond brilliant lyrics, Arthur Laurents‘ powerful book. Best of all, the Ordway honors Jerome Robbins‘ electrifying choreography, which gives WSS a gritty theatrical punch.
Do I need to summarize the plot? At a tense dance attended by the warring gangs, the Jets and Sharks, Tony meets Maria and the two of them embark on a brief but transcendent and tragic love affair. Meanwhile, the Bernstein/Sondheim masterpieces flow like crystalline water: “Maria;” “Something’s Coming;” “Tonight;” “I Feel Pretty.” I’ll stop here.
The great Tyler Michaels (the Twin Cities’ resident music theater wunderkind, edging out the almost-as-gifted Bradley Greenwald) plays Tony, and he’s a revelation, simultaneously starry-eyed and substantive. (And boy can he sing.) Desiree Davar is scrumptious as Anita and as Maria Evy Ortiz is simultaneously sweet and powerful (and boy can she sing.) Tyler John Logan compels as Riff. Ditto Mark Rosenwinkel as the put-upon Doc. Everyone thrills.
I lack room to wax enthusiastic about the marvelous design, but I would remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding painted drops for which, I assume, “scenic designer” James Youmans is responsible. Boffo.
As a critic, I suppose I should complain about the problematic sound mixing and about Ortiz’s breathy Rossini-esqueness, but pay no attention to me. This is terrific stuff and you should partake, even if you’ve seen West Side Story before (and you probably have). WSS is the Hamlet of music theater and anyone serious about the form needs to regularly see (and revisit) this show. The Ordway presents you herewith with a first rate op. Take it.
John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.