The Muny's production takes advantage of the theater's large stage, artfully using its full depth to create an urbanesque background crowded with brownstone windows and fire escape ladders. The backlit backdrop suggests another row of apartments and shops just a block over and provides subtle, but effective, visual reference to the time of day.
The scenic design, projections and lighting, by Robert Mark Morgan, Nathan W. Scheuer and Rob Denton, work in concert and large set pieces glide on and off stage with the actors, speeding scene changes and adding elements, such as chain link fences or a balcony-like stoop, essential to the choreography and story.
Instead of being from warring families, Tony and Maria -- this show's Romeo and Juliet -- are from rival gangs. The weapons used in gang warfare have evolved, but the conflicts and the territorial nature of war are ever present. The ensemble does a great job of representing the societal tension each gang reflects, showing traditional conflicts in a more contemporary perspective. Director Gordon Greenburg also uses the full stage well, the presence of an actor on stage in the shadows or crossing in the background adds context to the story, without distracting from the main action.
As Tony and Maria, Kyle Dean Massey and Ali Ewoldt have instant chemistry that reads well from the first moment they encounter each other. In fact, before they first speak, there's a lovely moment when Maria is observed watching Tony just out of his sight; she turns away wistfully and exits the stage without a word or gesture. It's a small, easy-to-miss moment that underscores the theme of star-crossed love. The entire show uses similar moments well, building the drama in ways that help to keep the audience, many of whom are familiar with both the musical and the 1961 movie, in the moment.
Massey and Ewoldt complement each other well vocally; their duets soar with longing and hope, presenting a nice counterpoint to the aggressive nature of the ensemble songs. There were a few moments when Ewoldt's strong soprano range nearly overpowered Massey and her other partners, though I expect the right balance will be struck with further performances. One of the disadvantages of the Muny's size is that we lose some of the gentle intimacy present in the movie's close up shots, Ewoldt uses pauses and silent moments effectively, with broader, bolder reactions that nonetheless suggest her character's warmth.
Massey drives the story with a number of his songs, and effectively charms the audience with his easy, hopeful style. In addition to his tension and chemistry with Ewoldt, Massey woks well with Doc (Ken Page) and Riff (Curtis Holbrook), creating a strong character that elicits audience sympathy. We watch Massey's Tony try to create a happy ending and are drawn to his emotional, youthful intensity.
The whole show has an uncertain energy driving it, and a tone that foreshadows the tragic love story. Even the popular "America," with a spectacular performance from the Natalie Cortez as a beguiling but not foolish Anita, has a sense of urgency and a dark, uncertain sub-context. Action (Drew Foster) and Lt. Schrank (Michael James Reed) also deliver strong performances that added context to the story; in particular, Reed's Schank had a racist undertone that was uncomfortable at times and well articulated. These subtle touches help to keep the musical fresh and the audience involved.
The characters are strong and familiar, and a number of the songs from this popular musical are permanently etched in our collective consciousness. It's a joy to see them performed in the context of the original musical, but what really stands out in a live performance, on a stage the size and scope of the Muny, are the dances. Jerome Robbins modern choreography was groundbreaking in the original production and choreographer Chris Bailey keeps close to the original in this production.
Robbins presence is announced with the opening prologue; the piece definitively sets the time and context before the first line of dialogue is spoken or melody sung. The energetic ensemble pulses with anger, excitement and sexual tension through intricate moves that mix classic and modern dance with elements of fight choreography. The style is as effective today as ever. The shear size of the dance ensemble, and the near-flawless execution of complex moves and athletic bursts, is both mesmerizing and memorable.
From an historical perspective, "West Side Story" is an important bridge between the traditional and modern musical. From an audience perspective, the show still captivates with unforgettable songs, familiar characters and remarkable choreography.
"West Side Story" runs through August 11th at the Muny Theatre, with curtain at 8:15 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or, for reservations or additional information, call 314-361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.