5th Avenue Theatre’s ‘West Side Story’: Big on Sound, Light on Fury

A new louder-than-life production exacerbates a masterpiece’s one problem
| Updated: June 21, 2019

Only a bit of the slang has aged (as slang always does) in West Side Story. The rest of it, including probably the greatest score (by Leonard Bernstein) and choreography (by Jerome Robbins) in Broadway history, is as fresh as the day in 1957 it exploded onstage, as the 5th Avenue’s current production proves. It closes Sunday, so you have a weekend left to see Bob Richard’s faithful but energetic reproduction of that choreography for the members of Spectrum Dance Theater who populate the chorus.

Beyond this, what makes the show particularly pointed and poignant for a 2019 audience is not just the tribalism and culture clash of the two street gangs who provide the tense backdrop for the doomed love story. It’s their inability to recognize their common enemy—as embodied by Lt. Schrank, the sadistically authoritarian and overtly racist cop whose disgusting manipulation of the white gang’s insecurity to further his persecution of the brown one has played out in real life every day for four years now.

The drama, especially this political angle, is in good hands in this production; only the romance gets shortchanged. Playing Tony and Maria, William Branner and Rebekkah Vega-Romero are belters, not crooners, and though their robust voices fill the theater, they are not performers who can pull back and draw you along with them into a moment. As a result, their love duet, “Tonight,” has a not-inappropriate puppydog exuberance, but less intimacy. (This also spoils the effect when the music of “Tonight” is later repurposed, with new urgency, in the “Quintet.”)

All the female performances, in fact, including Danielle Marie Gonzalez’s Anita, are pitched quite high, which makes the women-only numbers, “America” and “I Feel Pretty,” a bit off-putting; it’s alarming how charmless they feel. Under Bill Berry’s direction, it’s just a loud performance in general, both histrionically and acoustically; the mood range evoked is narrower than West Side Story deserves, and the harsh sound system compounds the problem. (I was sitting about six rows away from the very back of the top balcony; I can’t imagine how it all came off in row D.)

This loudness also exacerbates West Side Story’s sole serious flaw, the jarring presence of comedy numbers in Act 2, which was solved in the 1961 film version simply by reordering them. The twee waltz “I Feel Pretty,” especially as shrill as it is here, is even harder to swallow after the double stabbing that ends Act 1, and the jaunty “Gee, Officer Krupke” is nearly unwatchable. Though the film’s reordering is unavailable for stage productions, it happened to be closer to lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s original preference, though he was overruled by Bernstein, Robbins, and book writer Arthur Laurents, who had weird ideas about the efficacy of comic relief. 

Times and prices vary. 5th Avenue Theatre, downtown, 1308 Fifth Ave.; 206.625.1900

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