Now that “West Side Story” has strutted and preened across more than six decades, here is the sweet, small question our inner voices cannot help but ask.
How deeply moving might this show be if we didn’t already know every beat, lick and yawp by heart?
With its pungent lyrics, blanched musical intervals and darkly arresting dance sequences now burned into our brains through countless stagings and the Oscar-winning 1961 film, “West Side Story” has long served as lodestar for our prickly sense of urban awareness and notions of doomed romance.
Still, this story of warring gangs derived from “Romeo and Juliet” that trades swords for switchblades and traffics in the acrimony among disaffected teens battling over long-gone New York City neighborhoods requires us to take the bulk of its rancor on faith.
But let’s cut the frabba-jabba. Virginia Rep’s crowing, electric production of “West Side Story” at the Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre still packs a terrific punch even as we smirk at “daddio” and “buddy-boy” and other slang of the postwar big-city streets.
Directed with verve and affection by Virginia Rep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw and expertly choreographed by Matthew Couvillon, “West Side Story” returns us to the highly stylized culmination of a particular theatrical age but still leaves us with a sense of social empathy that feels more deeply resonant than ever.
In Shaw’s capable hands, the love story between Tony, a onetime member of the early-immigrant Jets now set on the straight-and-narrow, and Maria, sister to Bernardo, leader of the rival Puerto Rican Sharks, never overwhelms the musical’s deeper ambition to light a path from primal passions and misplaced loyalties to better destinies built on the liberated self-esteem central to the American character.
“West Side Story’s” Shakespeare-inspired narrative turns on how the forbidden romance, an obvious threat to the turf-and-territory status quo, eventually intersects with the long-simmering conflict between the gangs, which builds to a “rumble” that ends in tragedy and turns the lovers’ hope into hopelessness.
Creator Jerome Robbins’ vision — and Leonard Bernstein’s breakout musical score — turned a simple story into a masterpiece of baroque expressiveness, and this Virginia Rep production satisfies most deeply in the high-octane dance sequences where the link between base animal appetites and yearning human sensuality is thoroughly fused.
Anthony Smith’s music direction, Derek Dumais’ sound, Scott Bradley’s scenic design and BJ Wilkinson’s fractured and poignant lighting all cohere beautifully to evoke the primitive jungle as defining metaphor for the concrete and asphalt world of the gangs, and Sarah Grady’s hot-neon solid costuming brings to mind the florid colors and plumage of nature’s boiling face-offs and mating rituals.
Slashing visuals, runaway instrumentation and the simple pleasures taken in the beauty of the human form propel “West Side Story’s” narrative arc, rendering the acting less crucial to the drama.
But the show’s singing and dancing are uniformly excellent, with Brittany Santos providing the most mesmerizing vocals as Maria.
Justin Luciano, whose Tony must serve as a necessary bridge between the future and the past, comes off more as earnest Boy Scout than smoldering bad boy on the mend, just as the Jets’ finger-snapping in the ego-driven “Cool” seems more manic than brooding and seductive.
But Maria Cristina Slye quickly emerges as “West Side Story’s” hidden gem as Anita, girlfriend to Bernardo and counselor to Maria, as she defines the raw “ganas”— desire — central to the immigrant experience in the showstopping “America.”
It may be that a midcentury portrait of New York’s dispossessed no longer feels urgent and compelling to contemporary audiences.
But this production of “West Side Story” invites a modern-day meditation on personal pride and self-acceptance, especially in the phantasmagoric sequence that precedes “Somewhere,” as a virtual American dream of belonging, unencumbered by race, nationality, sexuality or gender reorders the show’s cast and characters onstage in a moment of unexpected harmony and sweeping emotion.
In this sublime moment, the clang and clatter of the streets subside in the face of love’s crystalline, clarifying power to reconcile. It’s the choicest turf to be found in “West Side Story,” and all of us want a piece of it.