Milwaukee Rep Stages An Electrifying & Politically Relevant WEST SIDE STORY

It always amazes me that West Side Story, the powerful and beloved tale about a need for love at a time when the world is rapidly derailing because of fear and intolerance, is just as potent today as it was when it first premiered on Broadway 62 years ago.  That’s why it’s the perfect choice for opening the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2019/2020 season in its Quadracci Powerhouse in downtown Milwaukee.  Not to mention, West Side Story is the perfect vehicle for the esteemed Mark Clements to mark his 10th anniversary as the Rep’s artistic director.  Given the memorable productions he’s so brilliantly helmed during the past decade, one wonders how Clements could do any better, but he manages to do just that with West Side Story, which could very well be his crowning achievement in Milwaukee theater.

West Side Story is a tremendous challenge for any director to pull off, with its high-stepping ballet dance sequences, show stopping songs charged with passion, shocking acts of violence and heart-tugging, ill-fated love story.  But Clements brings all the pieces together superbly by assembling a sensational cast and creative team for a beautiful and electrifying show that leaves the audience spellbound.  The hoots and hollers from the opening night crowd started early and continued right through the final act.    

My only fear as I write this review is that I’ll run out of superlatives to describe what I saw and felt watching West Side Story unfold in front of me on opening night.       

  

You know the story.  It’s about white skin versus dark skin.  The Jets, the American boys with the white skin, are having a turf war in a tough New York neighborhood with the Sharks, the Puerto Rican boys with dark skin.  A boy with white skin, Tony, falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl, Maria, but their genuine love is shattered in bits and pieces by hate and prejudice, and eventually blown away by an end-of-story tragedy that’s always so hard to swallow no matter how many times you’ve seen West Side Story on stage or watched the memorable 1961 Oscar-winning movie.

But the real takeaway here is how the Rep tells this original story about the tragedy of division in our society.

Fiery, explosive choreography that leaves you breathless is the best way to describe the dance numbers: “Jet Song,” where the Jets and Sharks first square off, “The Dance at the Gym,” where Tony meets Maria, “The Rumble,” resulting in the death of two key characters, and the “Ballet Sequence,” dreamily staged in all white, following the rumble.  The magnificent choreography is no surprise, given the hand behind it: Jon Rua, an original cast member of Hamilton and In the Heights.

Powerful, emotion-charged performances by Jeffrey Kringer, a New York-based actor, as Tony, Liesl Collazo, a native of Puerto Rico, as Maria, and Courtney Arango, a Cuban American, as Anita.  Kringer and Collazo have fabulously trained voices, which they superbly demonstrate by passionately singing composer Stephen Sondheim’s iconic “Something’s Coming,” “Somewhere,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight.”  Kringer’s Tony and Collazo’s Maria are overflowing with excitement and hope, which makes the tragic end to their love affair all the more painful for us to bear.  Arango is wonderful as the sexy and sassy Anita, leading the way in the lively number “America” that brought on the loudest shouts from the opening night crowd.  Arango also conveys authentic pain singing “A Boy Like That” to Maria, the sister of her lover, Bernardo. Also, Rep favorite Jonathan Wainwright gives a fine performance in the small character role of Lieutenant Schrank.                    

The show’s transitions, from the dress shop where Maria and Anita work to the gymnasium for the high school dance, and from the grim playground, where two bodies are carted away by paramedics following the rumble, to the fun “I Feel Pretty” number, are seamlessly handled by Clements.  Also, having his cast members bring their roles right into the audience makes us see the actual intensity and sweat West Side Story demands of its performers.

This is a splendid production, for sure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any noticeable flaws.  The actors portraying Chino, Maria’s intended beau, and Doc, the man who relayed Anita’s lie to Tony – and unwittingly ignited the show’s final heart-wrenching tragedy – played by Carlos A. Jimenez and James Pickering, respectively, give flat performances that lacked the emotional depth and anger I always associated with their characters.      

West Side Story runs through Oct. 27.  For tickets, www.MilwaukeeRep.com or (414) 224-9490. Photo: Jeffrey Kringer and Liesl Collazo Credit: Michael Brosilow