REVIEW | The timeless overpowers the timely in ‘West Side Story’ revival

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Jenna Burns and Kevin Hack in 'West Side Story.' (Photo by Johan Personn)

“West Side Story” is a classic.

The music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim have made it a landmark in musical theater with songs like “Maria,” “Somewhere,” “Cool,” “America,” and “Tonight.” It is an adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story set against 1950s New York with the lovers being on the opposite side of a gang war between the second-generation European immigrants, the Jets, and the newly arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Sharks.

Tony, a Jet who is on his way out of his life with the gang, meets Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, at a dance and they fall in love right as the two gangs are about to go on an all-out offensive. The young lovers are dragged into the fray and none of their good intentions can stop the war or prevent the dramatic ending that awaits all of them.

Premiering on Broadway in 1957, “West Side Story” was a creation of its time. The book is filled with New York anachronisms with the characters calling each other “Daddy-O” and exclaiming with phrases like “Cracker Jacker” or something similar.

It’s a dated piece and the touring production revels in the nostalgia and sentimentality of the show. There is an air of lightness to the proceedings, sometimes even hinting at a comedic approach to the anachronisms of the play. The young lovers are less like teens and more like children playing at romance. This production of “West Side Story” seems aware of the history of the show’s success and puts its attention on that rather on something that creeps out from the theme.

Because, even if it’s set in 1957, the issues that are brought up still hold true now more than ever. Racism, immigration, teen and gang violence, and even misogyny bleed out from the story and the direction of the piece never seems to highlight this.

It’s swept under the rug with elegant and graceful dance numbers that never acknowledge the violence that is supposedly happening on stage. There are two gangs fighting over territory and at its heart is a xenophobia very reminiscent today. But when they dance to present the fight sequences, it’s soft and delicate. It’s beautiful to see, and the touring cast are amazing dancers, but there is a disconnect between that and the story.

The dance numbers are elegant and graceful but devoid of danger. (Photo by Johan Personn)

The show is pretty. There’s no question. The set design moves and it has a beautiful moment where it begins as a street corner with two sets of buildings facing each other creating an image of a divide and when Maria and Tony get together to recreate their Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, the two buildings come together, thematically showing that these two worlds can co-exist.

It’s a beautiful image with strong symbolism but it’s never supported because the violence and the anger are not present throughout the play.

The dancing is devoid of danger and the anger is never tangible, except when it is coming from Kevin Hack, who plays Tony, Keely Beirne, who plays Anita, and Lance Hayes, who plays Riff.

Of all of the actors, they are the only ones who manage to bring the drama, though it does get sublimated by the overall direction. The weakest link, though, may be Jenna Burns, who plays Maria. Her accent sounded inauthentic and she takes to the direction that ends up making Maria feel one-dimensional and cartoonish.

It’s unfortunate because the story’s structure shows these two lovers falling madly in love after just seeing each other at a dance and talking on the balcony of Maria’s home. It’s so sudden and quick, and it could work if the violence around them was real and there was real chemistry going on between them so when they sing “Tonight” it sells the romance. It doesn’t quite do that in this production.

The individual parts in themselves are great — the dancing, the set design, the lighting — and hearing the beautiful music of Leonard Bernstein’s score live with a full orchestra is an incredible theatrical moment. But the production’s direction towards a sentimental and nostalgic approach to this timeless classic removes from the seriousness of its very timely themes.

“West Side Story” could be such a powerful theatrical experience to give us some sort of response to all the hate and racial tensions that is going around in this world but the production seems to avoid it by just being pretty. And while there is some poetry in that since “I Feel Pretty” is one of the musical’s more famous songs, it could have focused more on “Somewhere,” which is what this play should have been more about.