Scruffy but beautiful kids singing and dancing their angry, aching hearts out against graffiti-scrawled walls of Manhattan tenements—could be Rent, could be West Side Story. The shows have a lot in common, starting with how brilliantly they update a couple of classics. Rent is based on La Bohème; West Side Story on Romeo and Juliet. Both throw their racially diverse young characters into the maelstrom of a city beset with a terrible plague. For West Side Story, it's the violent teenage gangs who roamed the West Side of New York City in the 1950s. For Rent, the AIDS wave of the late 1980s.
Nearly 40 years before Rent rocked out to its cult of worshipful kids who slept on the sidewalk to get stand-by seats, West Side Story—now being performed in a heartfelt, exquisitely danced production at Irving's Lyric Stage—was the Broadway show that connected to young audiences. With a jazz-dissonant score by Leonard Bernstein, sardonic lyrics by young Stephen Sondheim (collaborating on his first Broadway show at 27), bebop dialogue by Arthur Laurents and vigorously athletic choreography by Jerome Robbins, it confounded the old-guard critics in 1957. They filed mixed reviews, calling it "super-modern" but "inarticulate." One compared its effect on the public to the toxicity of nuclear fallout.
Opening just after a summer that saw a dozen gang-related murders on the same turf on which the show was set, West Side Story dared to reflect the painful realities of being young, poor, alienated, in trouble and in love. Core themes about immigrant assimilation, police brutality and what used to be called "juvenile delinquency" were shockingly frank for Broadway at the time. That year's Tonys snubbed the show (honoring only the set and choreography) and heaped awards instead on the other major new musical, Meredith Willson's sugar-soaked old-fashioned fable The Music Man.
So it feels like a good time, the best time in decades perhaps, to rediscover West Side Story in its purest form (forget the maudlin, over-dubbed 1961 movie). There's a March 2009 New York revival planned, to be directed by 90-year-old Laurents, the first full-out production there in 29 years. One can only hope that it will be seen and embraced by the younger generations of theatergoers whose tastes have been polluted by repeated servings of American cheese products called Legally Blonde and High School Musical. Maybe it will even catch on with the boho kids now that Rent has ended its 12-year Broadway run.
The announcement of next year's Broadway return of the show made Lyric Stage producer Steven Jones appear positively prescient for picking it to open his theater company's 16th season. Lyric excels at doing big musicals in a big way, particularly ones that other theaters consider too complicated to undertake. This one needs a cast of 30 young actor-singer-dancers, plus a 32-piece orchestra.
To direct, Jones brought in Grover Dale, a veteran Jet from the original 1957 cast who is now 73 and something of a Broadway dance legend. Dale had never directed West Side Story before but had an idea for staging it in a way that simplified technical aspects—the set at Lyric is little more than a few tall metal stair units rolled around on wheels—while remaining true to Bernstein, Laurents and Robbins' original concept of high-energy music and dance flowing almost seamlessly through the story. Robbins' choreography has been recreated at Lyric (stunningly) by Dallas native Kate Swan, who has set the show many times.
To push the dancers closer to the audience, Dale extended the stage area in the Carpenter Performance Hall over the pit and sat the musicians upstage. The stripped-down style works. The clean stage so nicely frames Robbins' patterns of movement that fancy sets would just get in the way. And every nuanced note from conductor Jay Dias' orchestra, lush with string and horn sections, now can be appreciated.
Local gamine actress Kimberly Whalen plays Puerto Rican ingénue Maria (the Juliet role). Whalen was a lovely Julie Jordan in last year's Lyric gem, Carousel, and in this show her flute-y soprano soars into the stratosphere on Bernstein's multi-octave melodies. She brings sweet musicality and cute comic shadings to "I Feel Pretty" before donning the black veil as the tragic heroine in the second act.
Among the New York imports, Philip Groft, as the Jets' short-fused gang leader Riff, and Jeremy Dumont, as restless gang boy Action, have the triple-threat thing going for them big time. Groft's star turn on the "Jet Song" and Dumont's singing and clowning on "Officer Krupke" are Broadway-caliber.
Cast as the Sharks' brooding prince and feisty princess, Bernardo and Anita, out-of-towners Antonio Jimenez and Christie Peruso create sizzling chemistry and display super-sized voices. Kicking it up on "America," Peruso even made the best of an opening night wardrobe malfunction, grabbing her torn lace underskirt and twirling it over her arm without missing a beat.
This production's Tony, Micah Shepard, fails to generate much wattage. In that pivotal Romeo and Juliet meeting during "The Dance at the Gym" number, Tony and Maria must lock eyes and fall instantly in love. As the Sharks and Jets swirl around them in an erotic mambo, the couple enters their own private world, oblivious to the impossibility of their cross-cultural relationship (he's white and Polish, she's Bernardo's sister). Shepard's Tony simply gets lost in the crowd, a bland and passionless bystander. His singing voice, even miked, is almost whisper-thin.
The most exciting performers in Lyric's West Side Story, it turns out, are not even the leads but the supporting players, many of them making their professional theater debuts. In local auditions last spring, director Dale found skilled dancers the right age (under 20) and physique (muscles for the men, curves for the women) to execute Robbins' tough moves. Lili Froehlich as Anybodys, the Jets' rough-and-tumble tomboy, acts subtly but dances audaciously. Brett Quine as Baby John, Harry Nathan Feril as Diesel and Meghan Fluker as Minnie—these are high school students carrying off choreography that seasoned Broadway gypsies find difficult to master. The Jets' crazy-tense performance of the pre-rumble "Cool" is the most thrilling dance sequence in any show in Dallas so far this year.
Only one part of West Side Story is a throwback to those formulaic Broadway shows of the 1940s and early '50s, but it's still one of the show's high points. "Somewhere," the second-act dream ballet, allows Tony, Maria and the others to dance out their desire to relive childhood with colorblind innocence. At Lyric, swathes of pale, silky fabric unfurl from the rafters as the pretty young dancers run and skip through Robbins' steps, which he adapted from street games like Red Rover and Crack the Whip. The dancers appear to float above the floor, light as zephyrs, just before the music turns dark and ominous again and they're snapped back to reality.
Part modern opera, part punk ballet, in moments like this, West Side Story feels as classic as the Shakespeare that inspired it, and yet remarkably fresh and wild.