“West Side Story” remains a viable piece of theater for two reasons: a melodramatic plot that hurtles forward with crude energy and Leonard Bernstein’s mesmerizing score.
Bernstein’s music — deeply romantic, hyper-kinetic, rhythmically complex and suffused with jazz and Latin influences — is arguably the finest composition ever written for a Broadway show. A nine-piece orchestra assembled for the Spinning Tree Theatre production of his classic retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” under Gary Green’s direction was at times less than note-perfect on opening night but overall captured the beauty, drama and majesty of Bernstein’s work.
The show, co-directed by Spinning Tree founders Michael Grayman and Andrew Parkhurst, officially uses the original Jerome Robbins choreography, although the stage at the Arts Asylum is a bit too cramped for the uniquely expressive dances to really take flight.
A bigger problem is the theater’s acoustics, which proved to be unreliable. The blast of an air conditioner was a distraction for the first several minutes of the Saturday night performance, but even after the unit kicked off dialogue was too often rendered indecipherable in the sound mix. At least one musical number — the magnificent five-part “quintet” in Act 1 — was marred by a tinny quality emanating from the Jets’ wireless mics.
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Despite these and other annoyances, I have to report that the show, as it always does, got to me. The book by Arthur Laurents is essentially a tragedy about the fate of innocents — kids angry enough to be lethal but too dumb to understand their insignificance in the universe. The story of warring teen gangs and two young lovers, Tony and Maria, who hope their passion can defuse the clannish hostility is an enduring portrait of heartbreaking futility.
Jacob Aaron Cullum as Tony and Megan Herrera as Maria bring a wide-eyed innocence to the star-crossed lovers. They’re both gifted actors with plenty of musical-theater experience, and they invest the roles with convincing commitment. Donovan Woods as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, is a graceful dancer and a charismatic presence, while Riff, who leads the Jets, is played by Daniel Eugene Parman with athletic aggressiveness and clarity.
Delivering an incendiary star turn is Vanessa Severo, who makes an indelible impression as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s surrogate big sister. Severo, performing at the top of her game, commands the stage every time she sets foot on it. She makes the witty ensemble number “America” the highlight of the evening, and her duet with Maria — “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” — attains an irresistible tragic arc.
Key supporting performances stand out, particularly Kenneth Personett as Action, a member of the Jets. Personett is a terrific dancer and handles the lead on the acerbic “Gee, Officer Krupke” with style. Shon Ruffin makes a strong impression as Rosalia in “America,” Daria LeGrand commands attention as the tomboy Anybodys, and as a couple of the Jets’ “girls,” Stefanie Stevens and Amy Hurrelbrink attract attention with their tall elegance and sharp comic timing. Kip Niven pops up as Doc, owner of the neighborhood drugstore, and delivers a clear, unfussy performance.
Some sequences don’t work as well as they should. The “Somewhere” ballet uses two alternating vocal soloists. On Saturday that was young Andrew Stout, who demonstrated a clear voice and a less-than-absolute command of the melody. But his youth underscored the theme of innocence. The ballet itself fell short of achieving the transcendent vision of a sort of secular heaven that Robbins intended.
This is an American classic, and the Spinning Tree production represents an ambitious undertaking. It also allows us an opportunity to see this show in a relatively small theater. The effect is to make it intimate and personal in a way that is hard to achieve at Starlight or the Music Hall or on a Broadway stage.