Monday, January 26, 2015

"Mambo!": 'West Side Story' is Downright Glorious at Drury Lane Oakbrook -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

West Side Story
directed by Rachel Rockwell
Drury Lane Oakbrook
Thru March 29

"For most people West Side Story is about racial prejudice and urban violence, but what it's really about is theater: musical theater to be more precise. It's about the blending of book, music, lyrics and, most important, dance into the seamless telling of a story."

So wrote Stephen Sondheim, the legendary composer and lyricist, who penned only the lyrics for West Side Story, which bowed on Broadway in 1957.

The extremely erudite Sondheim shared these thoughts in his first compendium of collected lyrics, Finishing the Hat, and shrewdly referenced a rather unassailable truth:

West Side Story was created by some of the greatest artists in the history of theater, all working at the top of their game.

The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who essentially created a new language of dance to embody the tension between white and Puerto Rican gangs--the Jets and Sharks, respectively--on the streets of New York, as well as the unpopular-among-their-peers romance between Tony and Maria.

Of course, West Side Story borrows its basic storyline from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, whose story was updated by book writer Arthur Laurents.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
And though Sondheim would write the music for some of the most acclaimed musicals in history, on his first major work he ceded composer duties to the remarkable Leonard Bernstein.

With Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Chita Rivera, Mickey Calin and Ken Le Roy originating the roles of Maria, Tony, Anita, Riff and Bernardo, West Side Story was a pretty-much-perfect masterpiece from the time it opened on Broadway.

In the New York Times, Walter Kerr opined "Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we've been exposed to in a dozen seasons. ... The sheer visual excitement is breathtaking," while the headline in the New York Daily News read: "West Side Story a Splendid and Super-Modern Musical Drama."

Shockingly, West Side Story didn't win the Best New Musical Tony Award for 1957, losing out to another of my five favorite musicals of all-time, The Music Man.

But four years after its Broadway opening, West Side Story was adapted into a movie that won the 1961 Oscar for Best Picture.

Although I was well-indoctrinated to the movie, and the music, at an early age, I didn't see West Side Story on stage until 2004, when I caught a stellar local production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

Over the intervening years prior to seeing another terrific local production the other night at Drury Lane Oakbrook, I had seen West Side Story in a summer stock production at Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan, IL in 2008, in a Broadway revival in 2009 and on a National Tour in Chicago in 2011.

I have found every production to be outstanding, and that goes for the current rendition at Drury Lane as well.

Given my regard for the source material, perhaps I am not the most discerning critic, in terms of seeking any significant reinterpretations or reinventions. With virtually every song a classic, I'm delighted simply to hear great singing, watch phenomenal dancing, see strong acting and listen to powerful orchestrations.

And at Drury Lane, I--and the sold out Opening Night crowd of what has already become the most successful production in the theater's 30 year history--happily bestowed a standing ovation after getting all of the above.

Christina Nieves and Jim DeSelm are well-sung as Maria and Tony, national tour veteran Michelle Aravena is terrific as Anita, Rhett Guter, who also serves as choreographer, is strong as Riff and Joffrey Ballet member Lucas Segovia imbues Bernardo with truly outstanding dancing.

Tommy Rivera-Vega is particularly good as Chino, and also shines on the "Somewhere" ballet with Deanna Ott. Emma Rosenthal makes for a fine Anybodys, and I enjoyed seeing Roger Mueller--father of recent 2013 Tony winner Jessie Mueller--as a properly-exasperated Doc.

If you're looking for me to tell you that any or all DRO cast members were the very best I've ever seen in their respective roles, I can't--not due to qualitative judgment as much as eroded recollect.

There were a couple of performances I might have wanted to be a smidgen stronger, but as they didn't substantively diminishing my overall performance, to point them out would be unnecessarily nitpicky.

Without meaning to imply anything other than tremendous regard for the effort required simply to "get it right," the cast and crew of West Side Story at Drury Lane Oakbrook sent me home quite happy by delivering fine, faithfull versions of the sensational Robbins' dances--on the "Prologue," "Jet Song," "Dance at the Gym," "America" and others--and the numerous wonderful songs.

DeSelm "Something's Coming" and "Maria" both come across in fine form, and the charge of "Tonight" in tandem with Nieves is exhilarating.

Nieves is swell fun on the buoyant "I Feel Pretty" and wonderful alongside Aravena as Anita in a highly-charged "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love."

And the Jets' take on "Gee, Officer Krupke" is just outstanding, with the humorous song nonetheless being a prime example of how the insights of Sondheim's lyrics have held up for nearly 60 years--and seemingly always will.

The gist of what I was intending to say in this review is that West Side Story is such a good show--it's truly one of the greatest examples of 20th Century American artistry, in any vein--that even a routine rendition of it can feel magnificent.

But in writing this 4 nights after seeing the show, I'm reminded that the bulk of DRO's production is truly first-rate, and makes for more than a satisfactory night of entertainment.

Under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, with fine sets by Scott Davis, musical direction by Roberta Duchak and an 11-piece band, West Side Story in the western suburbs of Chicago is, as it's always been, an absolute delight.

No comments: