The Milwaukee Rep’s moving production of "West Side Story" is sure to earn the praise of current fans and gain many new ones.
Set in New York’s City in the 1950s, this beloved musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" explores the rivalry between two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The back-and-forth fighting between the members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, a white gang, is fueled by blind hatred. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, Tony, a former Jets member and best friend of the gang’s current leader, falls in love with Maria, who just happens to be the sister of the Shark’s leader, Bernardo.
Since its Broadway debut in 1957, "West Side Story" has captured the hearts and imaginations of countless theater goers – and for good reason. It has all of the critical components that come with making a universally adored musical. First of all, it has great source material. (Hello, it’s Shakespeare.) Secondly, musical theater geniuses Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim took that source material and composed music and lyrics that are beautiful, timeless and memorable both onstage and off. Even if you’ve never seen a production of "West Side Story," chances are you are familiar with some of the show’s notable songs such as "Tonight" or "Somewhere."
The final component to a creating a beloved musical is choreography. Putting on a musical without mind-bending, awe-inspiring choreography would be like a Packers touchdown without a Lambeau Leap; it just isn’t the same. And when it comes to choreography in musicals, no show tops this show.
When it comes to sharing my thoughts on The Rep’s production, this review of "West Side Story" may be among the shortest I have ever had the honor of writing for OnMilwaukee. That’s because I feel that you may be bored of hearing me try to think of additional adjectives for "spectacular," "extraordinary," "sensational" and "brilliant." Mr. Knightly perhaps summed up my speechlessness best in his declaration of love to the heroine at the end of Jane Austin’s classic novel "Emma:" "If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."
With this sentiment in mind, there is a part of me that simply wants to tell OnMilwaukee readers, "Just go see it, trust me, there is no way you could be disappointed," and leave it at that. But the other part of me knows that I have to at least ATTEMPT to describe some of the many aspects that make this production simply great.
Our male protagonist Tony is earnest, sincere and sensitive – characteristics that Jeffrey Kringer portrays effortlessly. It also helps that he has a swoon-worthy voice that particularly shines in the opening minutes of the show with "Something’s Coming." Long story short: He’s the kind of guy that would be very easy to fall for – even if you are a Shark (or related to one).
Speaking of people related to Sharks, Liesl Collazo’s Maria can only be described as perfection. She easily conveys charm, innocence and joy in a cheerful number like "I Feel Pretty" – then 20 minutes later, she breaks your heart as she tearfully fight for her love in "A Boy Like that." It is a rare talent indeed to convey such a range of emotions in such an accomplished way.
While it’s easy to like Kringer and Collazo on their own, the two of these exceptionally talented actors together is pure magic. The looks they give each other upon their first meeting during the show-stealing "Dance at the Gym" number is beautiful enough to make anyone believe in love at first sight.
The sizzling chemistry doesn’t end there. Special mention must also be made to Courtney Arango’s mesmerizing interpretation of Anita. She is fire. She is fierce. She is passion personified. She is a woman who knows what she wants and makes no apologies for it. But she isn’t the only one in the cast who oozes confidence and talent. In fact, everyone does. Every interaction between every character in every moment onstage feels electrically charged. Their energy and enthusiasm fills the Quadracci Powerhouse and practically makes it erupt in flames. There isn’t a person who could not be called a triple threat when it comes to acting, singing and dancing.
And oh, the dancing. Words really can’t do justice to express how remarkable and inspiring Jon Rua’s choreography is. I’m still replaying some of the show’s scenes in my head, marveling at the seamless and expressive movement. ("America" and "Cool" will especially take your breath away.) Rua was an original cast member of modern Broadway classics "In the Heights" and "Hamilton," and his impressive resume clearly shows in his work for "West Side Story." Rua has succeeded in paying homage to Jerome Robbins' original choreography while strategically injecting a 21st century touch.
OK, so maybe I had more words to say on the subject of "West Side Story" than I originally thought.
I wish I could tell you that "West Side Story" is a musical, while exquisitely beautiful, with a story that has no relevance today. I wish I was raising my son in a world where the violence and anger depicted in this show is a thing of the past, something that only fills the history books and isn’t present in modern society. But unfortunately, the kind of pointless hatred that you see here not only still exists today, but is everywhere you look. But, on the positive side, a story has the ability to move people in such a way where we can question how we behave and how we unjustly judge people in our everyday lives.
And since its premiere 62 years ago, "West Side Story" has been doing exactly that.
Through several Broadway revivals, national tours, international productions and even an Oscar-winning movie, it is a musical that makes us examine our relationships, how we think about people and how we can bring about change for the better. And the cultural love affair with this passionate tale isn’t ending anytime soon. Not only is there another Broadway revival and film adaptation in the works, but it’s exceptional productions like The Rep’s that keep this story and its message alive and thriving.