West Side Story
It’s dangerous for a critic to use superlatives. If you call something the best or the greatest, people question your standards. Plus you close off the top end of your scale. What happens when the next best thing comes along? Who cares. West Side Story is the best theatrical musical ever. Period.
Seeing it again on its 50th anniversary in a wonderful production from Royal City Musical Theatre is both a confirmation and a revelation. It confirms for me that no musical before or since has been blessed with such perfect chemistry: the combination of Arthur Laurents’ superb adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York, Leonard Bernstein’s incomparable music, the best lyrics Stephen Sondheim ever wrote, and Jerome Robbins’ classic choreography. The revelation is just how powerful, moving, exhilarating, uplifting, entertaining and intelligent the show really is.
And what a great ride it gets from director Lloyd Nicholson, musical director James Bryson and his 20-piece orchestra, choreographer Valerie Easton, RCMT’s lighting, sound and costume designers, and a remarkably talented cast of 36. This is an epic production. From the opening moments, when a muscular ballet plunges us directly into the world of the Jets and Sharks street gangs, I was hooked. “Here come the Jets - Yeah!”
The dynamic dance numbers convey the anger, frustration and joy of adolescence with such powerful athleticism. But it’s the songs you remember best, and their exquisite adolescent romanticism. No other musical has such a list of greats: “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Somewhere.” For me, growing up in the 1960s, this was one of the soundtracks of my life.
The show’s leads have no trouble meeting its difficult musical challenges. Mat Baker looks just a little too preppy as Tony, the leader of the Jets who wants out of the gang life, but his swooping tenor gives full value to every dramatic high note and crescendo. Kazumi Evans has great presence as Maria, plus an astonishing operatic voice. The star-crossed lovers’ duet of “Tonight” is almost unbearably beautiful.
Almost anything following that might seem anti-climactic but Robyn Wong’s exuberant Anita just about tops it, leading a chorus of Puerto Rican girls in the hilariously perceptive number about immigrants’ ambivalence: “I like to be in America…”
Listen closely to those lyrics and to the lyrics of the raucous “Officer Krupke,” which satirizes attempts to figure out the causes and cures for juvenile crime. “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!” sings the terrific Daniel Pitout. And listen to what the show has to say about racism and gang violence.
Great art doesn’t age. And this is the greatest.