The first thing anyone does in Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of West Side Story is light up a cigarette like a tough guy. The second thing anyone does is start dancing, and not like a tough guy, either. The speed with which these images are juxtaposed is perfect, because it tells you what you’re in for. It’s the show’s way of saying, “This is our concept. Gang members will be prancing, and the fights will look like ballet. If you can’t accept that, you should probably leave now.”
I accept it. But while I’ve always liked West Side Story and respected its place in history, it has remained in my second tier of favorite musicals—until now. PTC’s production might bump it up to the first. Its themes have seldom resonated as strongly, and its music and story have never blended as well as they do on the Pioneer stage. Pardon me if I gush, but as Maria puts it in Act II, “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong.”
Speaking of Maria, she is played fantastically by Deborah Lew. The New York actress won an award for playing the same role in a Chicago production—in other words, she knows her way around Maria. She possesses the stage with such grace and beauty, such sweetness in the love scenes and such ferocity in the finale, that not once do you wonder why someone named “Deborah Lew” is playing a Puerto Rican immigrant.
Her scenes with Jeff Applegate, who plays Tony, are most critical to the show’s success, and they are this production’s strongest point. The scene at the neighborhood dance—where they first meet and the rest of the world stops existing for them—is magically realized, a perfect combination of music, dance and wide-eyed emotion. While many actors in musical theater stop acting when they start singing—or, worse, begin to overact—Lew and Applegate remain constant in all their numbers, their dialogue flowing naturally into song and vice versa. Leonard Bernstein’s score can be credited for some of this natural feel, of course: If every company would do it right, it would always be this good.
Jennifer Paulsen Lee’s choreography, based on Jerome Robbins’ original work, suits the show and carries it through its several dance-centric numbers. Uncooperative microphones, thick fake accents and the large, echoing stage rendered the lyrics to “America” unintelligible on opening night, but the dancing kept the number from being a total washout. As the saucy Anita, Jennifer Rias has ample opportunity to shine in other scenes, anyway, and she is another highlight of the large, eager cast.
A few decisions made by director Gabriel Barre, however, can most charitably be described as “interesting.” For some reason, a young Scandinavian-looking boy emerges from nowhere to sing “Somewhere” as a solo, rather than letting Tony and Maria sing it. The boy seems to represent Youth & Innocence, for he reappears at the conclusion to gaze forlornly at the gun that has caused the lovers so much trouble. One spotlight is on him, another on the weapon. This is a bit of heavy-handedness that the show surely did not need.
That said, Barre’s overall vision of the show is strong and clear, and if his ideas for the young boy didn’t work for me, nearly everything else did. Several scenes indicate that he has taken a risk by doing things unconventionally, and most of them hit home. He mixes realism and theatrical fantasy so well that, like Tony and Maria, you start to believe anything is possible.
WEST SIDE STORY Pioneer Theatre Company, 300 S. 1400 East. Through May 21. 581-6961