By ROY BERKO
In the fall of 1957, I had a mind-blowing experience. I saw the newly opened Broadway production of West Side Story. At the time, all I knew about the show was that it was based on Romeo and Juliet and it had opened to positive reviews two days before.
I left the show with aching hands from clapping and clapping and clapping during the extended curtain calls. I became a West Side Story junkie, seeing the show time-after-time on the Great White Way before it closed, then the revival, and many other performances since.
West Side Story had an interesting road from concept to Broadway.
In 1954 Jerome Robbins conceived the idea of a contemporary musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. His concept was to center the focus on the conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan set during the Easter-Passover season. The Catholic “Jets” and the Jewish “Emeralds” were “gangs” in conflict.
Originally titled East Side Story, Leonard Bernstein proposed an operatic musical score. Difficulty with the book, music and lyrics eventually caused the idea to be dropped.
A number of years later, the idea re-emerged as West Side Story. The story is set in New York in the mid 1950s. Sharks came from Puerto Rico, and the Jets, are a collection of white working-class hoodlums. Tony, one of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, with disastrous results.
As the score and script developed, tension and comic relief increased, leading to the powerful impact of the play’s tragic ending. Effort was made to ensure that the show would be a musical drama, not a musical comedy, thus making it different from the Broadway shows of the day.
It is a musical with a serious theme, sophisticated music, extensive dancing and an investigation of social problems. The memorable score includes “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” “America,” “Somewhere,” “Tonight,” “I Feel Pretty,” and “A Boy Like That.”
Cast members, especially the dancers, were treated as actors and singers, not just as bodies to be choreographed, which opened a new way for chorus members to be treated, and laid the foundation for such future shows as A Chorus Line.
In 2007, Arthur Laurents decided it was time to adjust the script. His “new” West Side Story was opened on March 19, 2009. The production wove Spanish lyrics and dialogue into the English libretto. The show had an attitude adjustment, more serious, with some of the lightness eliminated. The characters were made more authentic.
The Porthouse production, under the adept direction of Terri Kent, is filled with the right attitudes, especially the emotionally wracked ending.
The right tone to the music, which is a highlight to Bernstein’s brilliance, was well performed by Jonathan Swoboda and his large orchestra. The sounds are full and lush where they should be and powerful when appropriate. It also underscored the performers, allowing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics to be heard clearly. The vocals were generally strong.
The choreography of Martin Céspedes, as has become expected from this multi-award winner, is the cement that holds the show together. The dancers are well-honed and show a discipline not often displayed on any but Broadway stages.
Céspedes avoids copying the Broadway dance patterns and invented new ways to stage the numbers, centering on the abilities of his performers. Especially effective were “The Dance at the Gym,” “America,” and “Ballet Sequence.”
Strong performances are given by Alexa Lopez (Maria), Victoria Mesa (Anita), Maya Galipeau (Anybodys), Zachary Mackiewicz (Riff), Rasario Guillen (Bernardo), Kirstin Angelina Henry (Rosalia), Steven Scionti (Schrank) and Rohn Thomas (Doc). Each developed a clear character. Impressive vocals included “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “A Boy Like That,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Jet Song.”
I wish that the dialogue between the Puerto Ricans was in Spanish, but it wasn’t. The difficulty of finding the critical number of actors needed to do that is great, so this void is understandable.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: West Side Story is near the top of my list of all-time great musicals. The creative choreography and solid character development of the Porthouse production did nothing to dissuade my love for the show. Bravo! I look forward to more shows produced by the Terri Kent and Martin Céspedes dynamic duo!
West Side Story runs through August 13. Due to a week of COVID cancellations there may be additional performances added. Check the theatre’s website. For more information, call 330-672-3884.