By Barry Reszel
Recent heightened awareness of racial tensions, punctuated by protests of head-scratching legal processes in Missouri and New York, provides particular poignancy to Drury Lane Theatre’s inspired, Rockwellian treatment of American musical theatre mainstay West Side Story.
But make no mistake. This is not Norman Rockwell‘s idealized, sentimental view of everyday life. The moniker belongs to Chicagoland director-extraordinaire Rachel Rockwell‘s gripping, risk-taking production that includes everything a West Side aficionado wants and a bunch more.
The well-known musical chronicle of the Tony (Romeo) and Maria (Juliet) love affair, featuring two opposing members of a 1950s New York cultural (and gang) war, is among America’s most beloved. (A full show history and synopsis is found here.) Based on William Shakespeare‘s play, this work of four musical theatre luminaries—Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography) opened on Broadway in 1957 and has played “Somewhere” ever since.
But not like this.
Yes, rival gangs clash and ballet breaks out. But these Sharks and Jets exude real, mindless racial hatred. Top cop Lt. Schrank’s (Brett Tuomi‘s) language and behavior evokes a guttural dislike. Shop owner Doc (Roger Mueller) barely tolerates the Jets in his business; he doesn’t coddle them. And even Officer Krupke (John Gray) is more normal cop than typically-played dufus.
But Rockwell’s greatest decision is the risk-payed-off casting of brilliant Christina Nieves as her Maria. Appearing first under spotlight after two opening frenetic scenes, Nieves delivers a wise-beyond-her-years Maria who, even though new to America from Puerto Rico, seems privy to the dangers of the New York streets and a seer into future tragic events.
This maturity doesn’t banish her necessary girlish love for Tony (well sung and played by Jim DeSelm). Just the opposite, it makes their whirlwind romance believable and the subsequent catastrophes more heartbreaking as a result.
But what’s particularly noteworthy about Nieves’ signature performance is its premiere quality. Both actor and director said following opening night that this is the first professional show in which she sings soprano. “Christina told me she could do it, and she is Maria,” Rockwell said matter-of-factly.
Nieves’ gorgeous duets with DeSelm—”Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere”; “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” with Michelle Aravena, who magnificently reprises Anita from her portrayal of the character in the 2013 national tour; and the lovely, playful “I Feel Pretty” with Lillian Castillo, Rachel Marie LaPorte and Lauren Villegas make up the production’s very best.
Additional musical highlights come in the very funny rendition of “America” by Aravena and Castillo and in the lighthearted, “Gee, Officer Krupke,” led by Adrian Aguilar as Action.
Stage kudos also go to Rhett Guter for his creative choreography (he’s plays a fine Riff, as well). And Tommy Rivera-Vega is an important Chino whose boyish shyness and legitimate fear are perfect juxtapositions to the self-assured Bernardo (well played by Lucas Segovia) and, particularly, to Nieves’ mature, confident Maria.
Backstage, plaudits to Scott Davis‘ multi-set functionality, Erika Senase‘s spot-on costuming and Matt Hawkins‘ electric and stunning fight choreography.
If additional proof is necessary to show everything this director touches turns to gold, her West Side Story is the fastest selling musical in Drury Lane’s 30-year history and has already been extended to March 29. The excitement is well-deserved by Rockwell’s 30-plus member, triple-threat ensemble.
But what patrons will remember, years from now, was that in winter 2015, they met a girl named Maria, and suddenly that name, would never be the same.
“West Side Story” runs through March 29 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. Parking is complimentary. Information and tickets ($43-$55 with additional dinner packages and senior and student discounts for some shows) are available online at www.drurylane.com or by phone (630) 530-0111.