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West Side Story at Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
December 21, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Jennifer Cordiner (Graziella) and Max Clayton (Riff). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Jennifer Cordiner (Graziella) and Max Clayton (Riff). Photo by Christopher Mueller

There’s a rumble going on at Signature Theatre as Director Matthew Gardiner reinterprets West Side Story in a production that breathes new energy into the story of two rival New York City gangs, the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (a local white gang).  Based on Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet, the modern version of the two star-crossed lovers, was written and created nearly 60 years ago by four members of theatre royalty with music by the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, book by the highly esteemed writer Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Broadway great, Stephen Sondheim.  The original production, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, debuted on the Great White Way in 1957, but its relevancy to modern day racial conflicts cannot be ignored.

MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) and Natascia Diaz (Anita). Photo by Christopher Mueller

MaryJoanna Grisso (Maria) and Natascia Diaz (Anita). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Parker Esse stays true to Robbins original choreography.  Yet in placing the action on a rectangular stage no more than 20 feet from any seat, we are rewarded with the bonus of visceral energy and muscle coming from the dance and fight sequences.  In this condensed setting it is easier to witness the intensity of the 30 dancers and singers who, surprisingly, share space with a 17-piece orchestra.  Such intimacy makes character interaction immediate and explosive and renders the tender,  forbidden romance between Maria (played winningly by the adorable Mary Joanna Grisso) and Tony (played by local actor Austin Colby), more heartfelt.  Juxtaposed with the gang fights, it is riveting to the core.  As Riff, the leader of the Jets, tells his gang founder Tony in their motto of solidarity, “Womb to tomb, worm to sperm.”  It’s that close.

J. Morgan White (Snow Boy), Joseph Tudor (Baby John), Tony

J. Morgan White (Snow Boy), Joseph Tudor (Baby John), Tony  Neidenbach (Big Deal), Ryan Fitzgerald (Action), Kurt Boehm (Diesel) and Ryan Kanfer (A-Rab). Photo by Christopher Mueller

In this hyper-physical production, all movement must be tightly executed and solidly synchronized to work well in such close quarters.  And it is.  To expand the real estate, Esse makes use of a second story steel catwalk as tenement fire escape.  Spanning three sides of the perimeter, the metal walkway clangs and clatters directly above the audience’s heads when the gangs are in hot pursuit.  It is a highly effective, heart-poundingly sensory experience aswirl with romance and conflict.

The cast of

The cast of  West Side Story. Photo by Christopher  Mueller

As an ensemble the cast is solid, though some gang members lack the credible machismo expected from street-hardened blood rivals.  Max Clayton as Riff, stands out, as does, Natascia Diaz, as Anita, the spitfire who is Maria’s protective older sibling.  Another captivating performer is dancer Shawna Walker in a secondary role as Pauline.  She’s the one with the short blonde hair who has the movements of a gazelle and the fierce tenacity of a leopard.  You can’t miss her.  And not to be overlooked is the charm of J. Morgan White as Snowboy, who has a scene stealing dance moment in Act Two in the number “Gee, Officer Krupke”, and Maria Rizzo as Anybodys, the androgynous Sharks’ gang groupie.  Notwithstanding the humor, the artistry of the dancers and the sweep of the memorable score, there is an important message here – one of tolerance, inclusion, and hope told through such classic songs as “Something’s Coming”, “Tonight”, “Somewhere” and “America”.

Austin Colby (Tony). Photo by

Austin Colby (Tony). Photo by
Christopher Mueller

Highly recommended.

Through January 31st, 2016 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

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