The audacity and depth of "West Side Story" are forcefully reiterated in an up-close revival playing to packed houses at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.
The production underlines the theater company's high caliber just as forcefully. I don't expect to encounter such an affecting, visceral staging of this 1957 musical anytime soon.
Given the talents behind it — composer Leonard Bernstein, writer Arthur Lauents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim — "West Side Story" was pretty much guaranteed to stand out from typical musicals of the day.
And it could not help but be a jolt for Broadway audiences to come face to face with gangs of street thugs, intense ethnic prejudice and — this being a show inspired by "Romeo and Juliet" — unnecessary, tragic violence.
That brilliant choreographer Jerome Robbins enhanced the whole thing with dance that sprang inevitably, boldly, even ruthlessly from the plot made "West Side Story" all the more genre-expanding.
All these years after its premiere, those groundbreaking aspects to the musical may seem routine, but only in a routine production. Signature's venture is anything but routine. The musical feels newly created, not just revived.
The show — the company's largest to date — has been fitted into a 276-seat house, where the audience sits in a U-shape around a stage that requires few, seamlessly placed props. A cast of 30 uses every inch of that space, as well as three balconies (a 17-member orchestra is perched on the fourth).
The result is as about as up close and personal as you could want. And there's no diminution of choreographic fights and flights in this intimate setting. Most importantly, this intimate setting allows the simple love story at the heart of "West Side Story" to register at every turn.
It's hard not to be swept away anew by the plight of former Jets gang member Tony and Maria, whose brother is leader of the Jets' Puerto Rican rivals, the Sharks.
Signature's associate artistic director, Matthew Gardiner, guides the production in sure, telling fashion; his expert pacing assures maximum effect for the emotional peaks, as well as the welcome comic relief. There's an organic flow to the staging, with every move, subtle or bold, emerging naturally.
One measure of Gardiner's incisive touch: Each member of the Jets and the Sharks is deftly defined, even those who barely get a line; no one ever blends into the ensemble. It's no small thing for a director to draw out details of personality the way Gardiner does here. (The Jet called Action, vividly played by Ryan Fitzgerald, is an especially striking example.)
Austin Colby makes a terrific Tony. He makes the suddenness of Tony's feelings for Maria seem inevitable, makes the dream he has for the two of them seem terribly real and possible. Colby's singing is admirable in tone and phrase, nowhere more expressively than in "Maria" (his voice lacks firmness when pushed at the top, but that's a minor matter).
At the performance I attended, understudy Katie Mariko Murray stepped into the role of Maria (normally played by MaryJoanna Grisso) and acquitted herself very well, vocally and dramatically.
Natascia Diaz delivers a star turn as Anita. She brings out every ounce of the character's humor, confidence and pride; her colorful, sensitive singing is an another plus. Diaz makes the big confrontation scene with the Jets in Act 2 doubly powerful.
Sean Ewing does formidable work as the Sharks' leader, Bernardo. Max Clayton likewise fleshes out the role of Jets kingpin Riff with flair.
Among the many supporting players, Bobby Smith brings considerable depth to the thinly written character of Doc, and Maria Rizzo adds telling, ultimately affecting layers to the role of the tomboy known as Anybody's (note where her eyes roam during the gym scene).
Choreographer Parker Esse honors Jerome Robbins' original concept and ensures a tight, taut response from the dancers. Spot-on costumes (Frank Labovitz) and refined lighting (Jason Lyons) enhance Misha Kachman's subtle scenic design.
And Bernstein's indelible score, with its ever-startling energy and brilliant fusion of jazz and Broadway, hits home from the opening note. Having a chamber-sized and cohesive orchestra, conducted by the excellent Jon Kalbfleisch, allows wonderful inner details in the scoring to be fully savored.
In our age of immigrant-bashing, of yelling instead of listening, "West Side Story" seems awfully timely. Issues of identity and turf, law and order, police, the American dream — they're churning and spinning, punching and clutching, right alongside those great songs.
Giving equal weight to all the currents running through the musical, the Signature Theatre production delivers an experience as enriching as it is entertaining.