AURORA, Ill.—Shakespeare uses the word “haste” some one hundred times in “Romeo and Juliet”—a clue that hormonal passion can push youth to either flights of fatuous love or uncontrolled rages of hate. Leonard Bernstein captured that headlong rush in his music for “West Side Story,” a modern tale spawned from the famous tragedy. Now nearly 60 years after the musical’s birth, Paramount Theatre’s director Jim Corti and his testosterone-fueled cast have brought the urgency of youth—the truly furious and fast—to the 21st century.
When “West Side Story” opens, the latest altercation between the white-boy Jets and Latino Sharks leads Jet leader Riff (Jeff Smith) to plan an all-out rumble between the rival gangs. He convinces his best friend and former Jet leader, Tony (Will Skrip), to join him at a dance that evening, where the challenge will be delivered. Reluctantly, Tony agrees, feeling somehow that his life is about to change.
The change for Tony will be his meeting Maria (Zoe Nadal), newly arrived from Puerto Rico and attending her first dance in America. Instantly, both feel nothing will ever be the same.
Unfortunately, they are interrupted by Bernardo (Alexander Aguilar), Maria’s older brother and the Sharks’s leader. The sister of the leader of the Sharks dates the Jets’s ex-leader? Um, no.
Although Tony convinces the gangs to ratchet down the all-out war into a fair fight with fisticuffs, he later promises Maria he will stop the fight altogether. But his attempt to do so only leads to disaster: Bernardo kills Riff, and Tony kills Bernardo.
So ends Act 1.
As is Mr. Corti’s custom, he sticks with the original script and setting—New York’s Upper West Side. He finds ways to keep the musical grounded in the late ’50s, yet allows it to speak to us in our own divisive and desperate time.
For example, when the movie version moved “I Feel Pretty” to Act 1, we got to know Maria before she meets Tony. This was nice. But we also lost the momentum of rushing right into the plot.
Corti puts the song back where it belongs at the top of Act 2. He leaves the bodies of the two dead gang members onstage, in the background, out of Maria’s sight during her song. This contrast scores a bittersweet moment and heightens the irony for the audience: Maria’s naiveté against reality.
Costume designer Theresa Ham stays away from simple color schemes to distinguish the gangs. Yet she stays true to the ’50s and puts the Jets gals in pedal pushers and Sharks Latinas in full-skirted dresses.
Kevin Depinet’s expressionistic cityscape traps the gangs, while Jesse Klug’s gorgeous lighting allows lush moments: When Tony sings “Maria” in a green spotlight filled with smokey haze, it’s against the black night with apartment windows lit in dark blue.
Skrip and Nadal play lovers dashing toward what seems like inevitable happiness. And fortunately both keep their performances earnest and likeable. Because Skrip is so relaxed and sure, we almost believe, like Maria does, that everything will work out. Petite Nadal captures Maria’s innocence, modesty, and finally her strength.
Skrip’s beautiful, strong tenor has a lovely falsetto, while Nadal’s high soprano has just the right clear bell tones. Both, though, could take more time to savor key moments in their songs. These are our primary relief in the sprint to doom.
Mary Antonini as fiery Anita is compelling throughout, especially in her rape scene. Her physical agitation and struggle to compose herself afterward dignify her character.
Despite the beauty of the lyrical scenes between Skrip and Nadal, despite Antonini’s vocal chops and searing scene—no matter how strong the leads are—the men steal the show. Their brutal energy wins out, and we’re once again caught in the furious and fast.
It is because “West Side Story” is a dancer’s show, especially in the hands of choreographer William Carlos Angulo. His Prologue, his “Cool” are as hard to classify as they are to watch: modern dance laced with robotic street dance and with a dash of the St. Vitus jerkiness thrown in. This choreographed chaos pervades even the usually hopeful “There’s a Place for Us,” which although still beautiful, manages to undercut our daydream of a happy ending.
And then there’s “Gee, Officer Krupke.” “Officer Krupke” is sometimes played for laughs, but not here. The malice in the piece clearly shows why these brotherhoods formed in the first place. The teens are in a cycle of despair, beaten to a pulp by everyone else in their dysfunctional lives.
Joe Dempsey’s nonchalant, callous Detective Schrank adds proof of that.
The dances made me wish for the simpler, pre-mash-up choreography of yesteryear. But there’s no denying we get the point clearly made at the end: It’s not yesteryear. We see no end to racial divides, brutality, or senseless killing.
Maria sits staring at us with Tony still in her arms. The gangs do not unite to carry Tony off together. And Maria’s “Well, I can kill too, because now I have hate!” is all too understandable.