Who's who?

West Side Story looks at the Others in America
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 20, 2007
PAIRING OFF: Sharks, Jets, Them

Will all “real” Americans please stand up? Who are these folks? How long have they been here? Where are they from? What language do — or should — they speak? Fifty years ago, the Sondheim/Bernstein classic West Side Story first presented us with its portrayal of an ethnically volatile New York City, and the tragedy of its two rival gangs. These are the Puerto Rican Sharks and the balkanized “American” Jets, in which, as a Shark puts it, “an American is really a Polack.” (“Says a Spic,” retorts a Jet.) Today, when immigration is our second-biggest domestic issue and civilian militias patrol the southern border with rifles, high emotions surrounding nativity are hardly bygone. And so to watch the Maine State Music Theatre’s tour de force production of West Side Story (directed by Charles Abbott, with music direction by Tim Robertson and choreography by Scott Thompson) is to watch more than some excellent song and dance. It’s also a meditation on the culture of exclusion, one that remains distressingly timely.

In other ways, West Side Story evokes a very different era. This musical’s aesthetic was groundbreaking when it was first staged, a striking union of classical, modernist, and cross-cultural song and dance, with a distinctively cinematic approach to its staging. With cross-faded scenes, dancing that ranges from ballet-inspired to cha-cha (originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins), and a score that brings together operatic solos, jazz syncopation, mambo, and dissonant diminished fifths, this modern New York City Romeo and Juliet was a stylistic watershed for American theater. One of the first mainstream musicals to deal with heavy social issues — youth gangs and delinquency, racism, corrupt authority — it also remains the quintessential American musical about how Americans define and withhold “American-ness.” These are all good reasons to see West Side Story. Another is that MSMT’s production is a sharp, nimble, and pitch-perfect portrayal of the doomed romance of Maria (Yolibet Varela), sister of the Sharks’ leader, and Tony (Michael Deleget), best pal of the head Jet.

The petite Varela throws herself into a Maria whose voice and willful, sassy sweetness are anything but small. As her doomed paramour, Michael Deleget has an earnest, ambrosial voice and supple limbs for dancing and scaling fences. The show is absolutely flush with fine dancers, particularly lead Jet Riff (Shane Braddock) and his stunning green-gowned girl, Graziella (Amanda Paulson). At the high school dance, Riff and his girl take on lead Shark Bernardo (Xander Chauncey) and his girl, Anita (Lindsay Lopez) in a fantastic dance-off scene that’s rich with costume designer Jodi Ozimek’s bright, mouth-watering petticoats. Accompanied by Tim Robertson’s excellent pit band, both the slapstick physical comedy and the fight scenes are grippingly choreographed and performed, and a simulated near-rape is horrifying as it builds.

The Upper West Side of Manhattan where these kids duke it out (represented in the spellbinding designs of scenic designer Dennis Hassan and lighting designer Brian Hapcic) is vertiginous in its heights and depths, its colors and textures. The sets change frequently — and with breathtakingly smooth stealth — between Maria’s fire escape, Doc’s drugstore hangout, and street scenes with a simple but gorgeous brick scrim. The fateful rumble scene takes place under an intimidating highway overpass, in front of a long chain-link fence, and under gels that make the fighters burn red and the knives glint blue. And behind all of this is a steep and epic backdrop of the city, with great depth of field, towering brick and brownstone towers, and clotheslines webbed through it all like tightropes.

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