Review: West Side Story Transports Romeo and Juliet to NYC in the '50s

After decades of productions of West Side Story, both professional and amateur, it’s hard to grasp how daring and original the notion of a contemporary musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was in the 1950s. The idea originated with director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, composer Leonard Bernstein and script writer Arthur Laurents, who at first considered a romance between a Jewish Holocaust survivor and a Catholic boy. In his log, Bernstein wrote: “We have abandoned the whole Jewish-Catholic premise as not very fresh, and have come up with what I think is going to be it: two teen-age gangs as the warring factions, one of them newly-arrived Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled ‘Americans.’ Suddenly it all springs to life. I hear rhythms and pulses, and — most of all — I can sort of feel the form.” When Bernstein heard “a young lyricist named Stephen Sondheim” sing some of his songs, the brilliant creative team was complete.

“Here we go,” Bernstein commented. “God bless us!”

The theme was settled, but questions remained. Gang life in the gritty urban streets was hardly considered the stuff of art, and how would the musical play on Broadway, where lighthearted fantasies like Cinderella and The Music Man dominated? Were street kids capable of the high-toned poetic emotion of Shakespeare’s doomed lovers? Would music and dance substitute successfully for his language? Bernstein worried about the form, tone and approach of this new work: “Chief problem: to tread the fine line between opera and Broadway, between realism and poetry, ballet and ‘just dancing,’ abstract and representational,” he wrote. “Avoid being ‘messagy.’ The line is there, but it’s very fine, and sometimes takes a lot of peering around to discern it.”

The caveats made sense. The audience would need to see performers as dangerous killers even as they were flying through the air to Bernstein’s music and Robbins’s inspired choreography, or saying things like “Daddy-o” and “Cokes all around.” Even then, the fights must have seemed tame. And protagonists Tony and Maria were somewhat undeveloped as characters, essentially two pretty young people, prettily in love, and without Shakespeare’s words to give them depth and contour. Yet the concept worked, and it still does. Even the movie, deplored by fans at the time for the casting of the wooden Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer in the leads — neither of whom could sing well enough to carry the songs without being dubbed — and with only one Puerto Rican performer, Rita Moreno, is reliably moving.

West Side Story is still easy to do badly, but because of the transcendent musical score, it’s not that difficult to do well, either. The current production at Littleton Town Hall, directed by Nick Sugar, is done well enough to remind us just why this is one of the great musicals of all time, still capable of moving an audience to tears at the end. And it also has sufficient flaws to highlight the dangers of staging a work this brilliant.

The plot, which follows closely on Shakespeare’s play, is tightly constructed with genuine urgency and forward movement, and Sugar sticks to it. The dancing is expressive, and while the acting is uneven, Kent Randell’s Bernardo and Ronni Gallup’s Anita are standouts, and Jared Ming is a charmingly diffident Tony. But the music is key, with melting love songs — “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart,” and the stunning duet between Anita and Maria, “I Have a Love” — and the wit and rhythm of “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke.” Usually Sugar has a strong handle on all things musical, not to mention the services of the gifted Donna Kolpan Debreceni as musical director, but something felt off here. I’d seen Carolyn Lohr, who plays Maria, before, and marveled at her beautiful voice. Sure enough, her duets with Tony began harmoniously. But their singing styles never quite meshed, and her voice became inexplicably harsh on certain high notes. Reading the program later, I found Debreceni thanking Susan Draus for “her lovely tracks”; in other words, this production had no live musicians.

The interaction between singer and orchestra is one of the most dynamic and important elements of musical theater. Perhaps it’s impossible for a small venue to muster the resources for full orchestration of a work like this — but what a shame to damp down the effect of a piece of musical genius like West Side Story.

West Side Story, presented by Town Hall Arts Center through October 11, 2450 West Main Street, Littleton, 303-794-2787,
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman