By Erin Fleming
Chicagoland fans of Shakespearean musical adaptations take heart: those whose star-crossed cravings weren’t quenched by Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Romeo et Juliette can find their next fix with Paramount Theatre’s gorgeously-mounted production of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein‘s and Stephen Sondheim’s contemporary retelling of, what else, Romeo and Juliet.
This hauntingly dark and fearless production of West Side Story simply astounds as it captures all the emotion of the beloved classic.
On the one hand, it is no surprise the Tony-award winning musical has steadily endured since its 1957 debut, inspiring revivals, tours, community and high-school productions, and a film adaptation that holds the record for Academy Award wins for a musical. It’s a surefire formula: take a Shakespearean love story and set it in a mid-century working class neighborhood in NYC’s Upper West Side, against the backdrop of racial tensions between whites and Puerto Ricans. It stands firm on most Broadway enthusiasts’ Top Five lists because it’s got it all: romance, sex, violence, social commentary, melodies that linger in the brain for days, and oh…the dancing.
On the other hand, considering the challenges of the show, one wonders if it takes not just a clear vision and confidence, but perhaps a bit of self-delusion on the part of a creative team to attempt it. The score requires musicians and vocalists with proficiency in jazz, latin music and ballads. There is very little non-musical dialogue, and what does exist varies between the poetic and the guttural. What might seem on the surface to be a dance-heavy teenage romance is actually a sadly all-too-relevant tale of racial intolerance and violence that actually relies on actors with extraordinary range to carry off their demanding character arcs.
Thankfully, Director Jim Corti and his team have just the right amount of confidence and/or self-delusion, because they have tackled the the full scope and spectacle of the story and realized it in breathtaking staging that truly befits its epic nature.
From Will Skrip’s very first crystalline tenor notes on “Something’s Coming,” he has everyone on his side, rooting for the young man fighting for his future, unclear as it is. Refusing to be trapped by race, class, economics or his prior gang affiliation as a Jet, Tony is determined to move onward and upward. He’s just not sure to what, exactly. That is, until he locks eyes with Maria at the high school dance.
Skrip’s strong, sweet voice is stirring on “Tonight” and “Somewhere,” and blends beautifully with Maria, portrayed by the lovely Zoe Nadal as a small, white flower, reaching up through a crack in the pavement, struggling for sun and air. Her love for Tony may be misguided, it may be too much, too soon, it may only be teenage infatuation, but in the hands of Nadal it is unquestionably authentic. She transforms from an idealistic ingenue to a heartbroken woman in a tragic instant.
The lovers are supported by a fantastic ensemble of Sharks, Jets and their girlfriends—including Aubrey Adams, endearing as the “tomboy” Anybodys (if it was written today, s/he’d be described as transgender), a thoughtful portrayal that highlights how even within the separate white and Puerto Rican communities, individuals can still feel out of place among their own. The teenage world is inhabited by a small collection of adults who range from the merely ineffectual (Tom McElroy’s world-weary Doc) to the outright corrupt: Joe Dempsey’s Schrank is particularly menacing.
It is impossible to steal focus from Mary Antonini, a show-stopping performer who sings, dances and cracks wise as Anita with an irresistibly sensuous fierceness. Antonini’s stunning dramatic turn in the “Taunting” scene, where Anita is thrown around like a ragdoll among the Jets in what is arguably the most graphically violent moment in the show, distinguishes the actress as a powerhouse of talent. This is the moment where Anita makes the decision that changes forever the fates of the lovers, and Antonini transparently unfolds that pivotal second with a sublime mixture of rage and grief and restraint. The audience can only look on, transfixed and horrified, resigned to the inevitable tragedy.
In its time, West Side Story was groundbreaking in how it used dance to further the narrative. William Carlos Angulo’s choreography lives up to this legacy with a feral, testosterone-infused intensity. It feels like every chirp of a horn, every pluck of a string in the score has its corresponding kick, twirl or lift. Ensemble pieces such as the “Prologue,” “America,” the dance at the gym and “Gee Officer Krupke” explore the themes of cultural identity and adolescent alienation with sweat and blood and guts. Every couple’s dance seems like it might turn into a fight; every fight scene seems to be fueled by a raw sexuality. The dancers render the complete potential of the multi-layered score, beautifully played by the 19-member Paramount Theatre Orchestra and expertly conducted by music director Tom Vendafreddo.
Set Designer Kevin Depinet and Light Designer Jesse Klug provide the expressionistic no-man’s land where the turf war between hope and desperation gets played out in a hormonal haze. The set is angular and industrial, with the cold, hard metal of fire escapes and trestles jutting out from dark fenced-in corners. The light is selective and sparse, with no natural source, communicating that the young people of this world are trapped inside.
Corti’s vision is, though gorgeous, essentially sad. He has chosen not to infuse the final moments of the performance with a hopeful reprise or a hint of an alternative future. The closing images will linger awhile, along with the beloved melodies, and maybe they should.
The Paramount Theatre presents “West Side Story” through April 23 at 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. Performances are Wednesday at 1:30 pm and 7 pm; Thursday at 7 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm; and Sunday at 1 pm and 5:30 pm. More information and tickets are available by calling (630) 896-6666 or online here. (Photo credits: Liz Lauren)