When West Side Story appeared on Broadway in September 1957, critics described it as electrifying and savage. This month, Fiddlehead Theatre Company brings this Bernstein/Laurents/Sondheim musical classic to the historic Strand Theatre in Dorchester, Massachusetts. However, this production lacks the electric and misses the savage. By using many aspects of the original production by Jerome Robbins, the musical feels surprisingly safe. The vibrancy in the dance is lost, despite the eagerness and ability of the talented ensemble. While some of the leading characters, particularly Kim Corbett as Maria, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva as Bernardo, and Pamela Turpen as Anita, offer star-studded and remarkable performances, this West Side Story is set in the safer alleyways with the “Tonight” that fails to reach its apex, but pleases the crowd nonetheless.
This classic “Romeo-and-Juliet” story is set in the 1950s in the Upper West Side of New York City. Here, we meet rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, who engage the audience immediately in the action, as the men enter from the audience, the balconies, and the wings to engage in the beginnings of a street fight. This fully immersive introduction in the famous “Prologue” dance is an important choice, given the musical’s gravity in the local area. It is hard to ignore that gentrification and racial strife is part of Dorchester; depending on the part of town, you can see police officers interrogating a group of racially diverse men, a homeless woman begging for money, or a gay couple pushing a stroller. This community is the perfect fit for a production of West Side Story, and, throughout the performance, you cannot help but find the modern, local, and palpable parallels to our Greater Boston culture and national dialogue about racial and cultural relations.
A love story is at the center of this musical. Associate Producing Artistic Director and Costume Designer Stacey Stephens accurately summarizes the musical as a “story of life and death, love and hate.” But, moreover, he emphasizes that these are “people looking for their place; a place of acceptance, and belonging.” Stephens highlights these dichotomies with his costume design, creating a world of harsh blacks (the Jets) and crisp whites (the Sharks), but he wisely costumes his lovers in softer greys, streaks of white and black accenting their understanding of both cultures and their unwillingness to be tied to any place. These young lovers' search for a better place becomes the driving force in this story. Jeffrey Zicker’s Tony is boyish and fun, a charming All-American boy, who works at the local pharmacy with Doc (played with beautiful empathy and experience by John Davin). Zicker finds the joy in Tony and his energy drives many of the scenes in Act I. His voice lacked the same joy, straining to hit Tony’s tenor range, losing some of the poignancy and emphasis in Bernstein’s gorgeous score, especially in “Something’s Coming” and “Maria.” Zicker seemed afraid to take vocal chances with the difficult score, leading to a safe performance that rested in a solid bari-tenor range and then flipped into a head voice when necessary. I missed the vibrant sound of a young and exciting Tony, soaring into the rafters with his profession of love for the name (and girl), Maria.
Kim Corbett’s Maria is breathtaking. With a bright tone and a girlish, but mischievous look to her, Corbett’s Maria becomes a girl can defy her friends and family for a man who she just met tonight. We fall in love with her as easily as Tony does, especially during her “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty.” Corbett has the acting skills to make Laurent’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet feel organic and in this present moment. For once, we believe that these lovers have a love that is real, that their relationship is possible, and that the world can be a better place. Her chemistry with Zicker feels simple and pure, thanks to Stephen’s unaffected direction. Corbett carries many of the songs in her pocket, unleashing a powerful soprano to ring from the rafters, and portrays a Maria who is bursting with love and song.
Corbett is matched in Act II by Pamela Turpen’s Anita, who gives a brilliant and moving performance. Her Anita is womanly, sexy, confident, experienced, and alluring. Her relationship with Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva’s Bernardo is full of tenderness, along with a deep understanding for each other’s flaws. You can see Turpen’s Anita and Quinones-Villanueva’s Bernardo growing old together, bickering through the kisses, which becomes a sharp reminder of a warm love cut too short. Quinones-Villanueva’s Bernardo offers a cool confidence, a man of few but sharp actions, which perfectly accent his place as the center of the Sharks. Unfortunately, Theo Lencicki’s Riff fails to match this intensity. The opening “Jet Song” lacks some of the necessary edge, mostly from Lencicki’s lack of verve as the leader. Lencicki is a fine performer who seems miscast as Riff, opting instead for a more romantic lead, such as Tony. This lack of excitement stifled some of the Jets’ scenes as even Gabriel Corey’s Action seems more like a person with ADHD than a hothead.
The Jets fire up at the dance, however, and the “Dance at the Gym” offers some of the best choreography of the show. The dance is clean, exciting, and motivated and driven by the story and characters, with a stellar dance performance by Lindsay Bell's Graziella, Riff’s girlfriend. Wendy Hall’s choreography stems largely (if not entirely) from Jerome Robbins’ original conception and choreography, a notable choice. However, in performance, the cast feels bound by the movement rather than organically compelled to action. “Cool” feels lukewarm as the actors struggle to stand-out in their moments to shine, many of them lacking the impetus to drive the song’s action forward.
Luckily, the Sharks’ women fare better in “America,” an exceptional musical number with great diction to make the biting commentary between the old and new ways of life for Puerto Ricans in America seem even more accessible and understandable. The Jets men reclaim themselves late in Act II for a crowd-raising performance of “Gee, Officer Krupke,” but they struggle with some precision and diction difficulties. Despite these highs and lows in musical numbers, the action moves at a steady pace, especially from Anita and Maria’s stirring duet, “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love," to the end of the show. I was moved to tears, openly weeping in the final Drugs Store scene, directed and played to heart-wrenching effect, and these tears continued until the final bows..
This production of West Side Story succeeds when it takes risk, and it pleases other critics when it plays safe. The production choices feel like a calculated reaction to the recent critics’ pan of their prior daring and innovative production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Here, we are left with the classic love story and gorgeous music (with outstanding orchestrations and mastery by Music Director Charles Peltz), but none of the social commentary. It's concerning for a reviewer to put his own expectations into a review, but I had high hopes for this particular production because of its location in Boston, its smart and insightful production team, and its wealth of ensemble talent.
While you cannot beat the sound and visuals in the Strand Theatre’s historic space, and the assembled cast features some amazing dance and vocal talent, this West Side Story feels like most of the rest, a notch above in talent, but not in heart. Without the poignant ending moment of love and acceptance among the surviving characters, the sharp social commentary in the relationships among the gentrified neighborhoods, and the smart risk-taking in concept and design, this West Side Story lacked what I needed most: answers, hopes, and dreams. If theatre does not provide some sense of catharsis, some form of crafted storytelling for a better future, and some possible answers to some of the world’s toughest questions, then what is the point, but to be entertained? That might be enough, and they have most of the talent to make it happen; it is just not enough for me. I found a lot to love about Fiddlehead’s West Side Story, but I cannot say that they stole my heart or took me to that better place.