A Relevant West Side Story

West Side Story at the Guthrie brings a sharper point of view to the Jerome Robbins classic

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of West Side Story, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Joseph Haj. Scenic design by Christopher Acebo, costume design by Jen Caprio, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop. June 16 — August 26, 2018 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by T Charles Erickson.
The Sharks (left) and the Jets (right) fight for turf with all new choreography by Maija García in the Guthrie’s West Side Story.

All Photos by T Charles Erickson

From the get-go, the Guthrie’s rendition of West Side Story (through Aug. 26) stood out because of its casting and new choreography. Based on Romeo and JulietWest Side Story follows Tony, a member of the 1950s New York gang the Jets, who falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. In almost every version of the musical, the Jets are white.

After researching gang history and using a different—some might say more real—interpretation of the Jet’s stage description as “an anthology of what it means to be American,” artistic director Joseph Haj made the Jets not only of European descent, but of African and Asian as well. It was no longer a unified, if not institutional, white America versus a perceived outsider; it was a fight between New Americans and those who were new not too long ago. This casting difference and Maija García’s new choreography dominated the press and at least one post-show discussion (with broader ties to cultural relevance), but as far as the musical itself went, that was pretty dang good, too.

With Haj’s direction, his hand-picked creative team, and a more-than-willing cast, West Side Story was full of memorable snapshots. Sometimes when you see a musical, you leave with a saturated, monolithic feeling of happiness or sadness or amazement because everything was so integrated together. The Guthrie’s production, for better or worse, left me less immersed in the general impact and more intrigued by moments I could single out and examine.

Mia Pinero (Maria), Marc Koeck (Tony) and the cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of West Side Story, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Joseph Haj. Scenic design by Christopher Acebo, costume design by Jen Caprio, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop. June 16 — August 26, 2018 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by T Charles Erickson.As a tribute to the show’s good pacing, two of the three moments that really stuck with me were at the end. Neither are particularly happy, but both are beautiful in their juxtaposition. One was when Maria (Mia Pinero) held Tony (Marc Koeck) at the end of the musical. They were two figures in white—symbols of hope and new life—surrounded by a rainbow of people orchestrated by costume designer Jen Caprio. The other was the last shot of the play, as Maria gazes up at the Statue of Liberty. In Christopher Acebo’s set, the Statue of Liberty is upside down, and in this moment, it is looking down at her through the confining and shadowed jail bars of the city with impassive, stone eyes. 

The third moment is more of a sound: the call of Pinero and Koeck’s “Tonight.” Their voices are classic and strong in all of the songs—floating perfectly in idealistic dreams for “Somewhere,” especially—but the simple refrain of those two words hold so much warmth and affection when they sing them to each other.

While the overture’s choreography of the Sharks and Jets feud doesn’t quite evoke a playful tension, García’s prowess kicks in on high-energy numbers like the Dance at the Gym and “America.” It also shines in more intimate moments like Maria and Tony’s first meeting and in “Somewhere,” which has a quiet, fragile magic as the two step toward a world they had to build in the possibilities of their imagination.

Many traditional highlights of the musical are there, too: the innocence and aching dramatic irony of “One Hand, One Heart”; the fire of Ana Isabelle’s version of Anita, which burns through sass and sustains through grief; and Jets leader Riff, played by Darius Jordan Lee, who commands the high emotion of such a charged role. What’s missing? The iconic Jerome Robbins snap.

My only lingering disquiet about the show is that about half the cast—including Tony, Maria, Anita, Bernardo (the leader of the Sharks), and Riff—are not from the area even though the program’s Guthrie Spotlight Q&A specifically talks about the theater’s commitment to local casting. 

Still, everything worked together for West Side Story, and the capabilities of the cast and the creative team blended together beautifully to create a story rife with emotion, fun and reflectionThose who have seen the musical will love dwelling on the differences of the Guthrie production, and those who haven’t will wonder if the original’s artistic choices would resonate as much. And really, with a reboot of one of Broadway’s iconic shows, what more could you want?

Ana Isabelle (Anita), Marco Antonio Santiago (Bernardo) and the cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of West Side Story, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins with a book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Joseph Haj. Scenic design by Christopher Acebo, costume design by Jen Caprio, lighting design by Bradley King, sound design by Elisheba Ittoop. June 16 — August 26, 2018 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by T Charles Erickson.
Above: Ana Isabelle as Anita and Marco Antonio Santiago as Bernardo take the dance floor in the Guthrie’s West Side Story. Inset: Marc Koeck as Tony and Mia Pinero as Maria on her balcony.

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