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A 'West Side Story' for The Ages

By Mike Fischer

 

Let’s cut to the chase.

I had only one true regret after seeing Milwaukee Rep’s West Side Story: Milwaukee Rep had already posted my essay on the top ten shows directed by Mark Clements during his first decade in Milwaukee. Clements’ West Side Story would most certainly have found a home near the top of that list. I’d go further: it’s among the best productions of West Side Story that I’ve seen.

To take two illustrative examples, involving prior productions of this watershed musical that I really liked: There are individual elements in the 2009 Broadway revival and last year’s ravishing Chicago Lyric production that I preferred. But when taken as a whole, I’d choose The Milwaukee Rep production over either one of them.

In the spirit of the two Top Ten lists I’ve already written for Milwaukee Rep, here’s eleven of the many things that make this Milwaukee Rep production sing (in no particular order):

1. Jon Rua’s Choreography: Count me among the sceptics when Milwaukee Rep indicated they’d be messing with Jerome Robbins’ iconic, balletic choreography, which I love. The 2009 Broadway production (and the ensuing tour that stopped at the Marcus Center) had rearranged Robbin’s choreography at the edges; the result was interesting rather than defining. Rua and a cast that can flat-out dance make much bolder choices, embodying the rough and raw world in which we now live without losing the aspirations and beauty baked into Robbins’ high-flying original. Like Robbins in 1957, Rua and this cast are reaching for the stars. But their feet remain firmly planted on the ground.

The ensemble of Milwaukee Rep’s West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

2. Somewhere: The second-act ballet sequence, in which Tony and Maria’s dream of a magical somewhere turns into a nightmare, moves backward from the unparalleled beauty of an unrealizable heaven (aided by costume designer Alexander B. Tecoma) toward these kids’ living hell, in a rewind that suggests Hamilton. It’s the same song and sequence I’ve seen play out in more productions than I can count. But as beautifully sung and performed here – and no, I won’t disclose the soloist, except to tell you that Clements’ choice adds immensely to what this anthem of hope means – that song is emphatically not the same.

The ensemble of Milwaukee Rep’s West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

3. Kids: Did I just call them kids, above? Yes, I sure did. That’s what these gang members are in this story, whether as presented by Shakespeare or as adapted for West Side Story. Even some school productions I’ve seen haven’t done as much as Milwaukee Rep’s production does to convey just how young and scared this play’s teens are. Milwaukee Rep cast young, trading experience for authenticity. It was a gutsy move that pays huge dividends. Tony and Maria seem impossibly young, here; Riff (a strong Jacob Burns) in particular seems much too young to lead a gang. This Riff doesn’t really want to fight; in numbers like “Cool” and in the rumble that kills him, he looks terrified – all the harder to watch because he’s trying so hard to walk like a man.

Left to right: Alex Hatcher, Clay Roberts, Jacob Burns, Devin Richey, Alex Hayden Miller and Nick Parrott in Milwaukee Rep’s production of West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

4. Chuck Coyl’s Fight Choreography: Kudos to a fight director who understands what so many fight choreographers in contemporary theater forget: being safe doesn’t mean being boring. The fight scenes in this West Side Story are thrilling; they’re also smart. Watching Riff and Bernardo (José-Luis Lopez, Jr.) rumble reinforces yet again what I just tried to say above in #3: These are kids trapped in tough guy roles they don’t want, much as they’re trapped in a tough world they never made.

Jacob Burns, José-Luis Lopez, Jr. and members of the West Side Story ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

5. Tony, Tony, Tony: Memo to Clements: Can you please bring Jeffrey Kringer back? Soon? Kringer sings like an angel: he has a gorgeous, full tone as well as impeccable modulation and control. His Tony looks like a nerd (which is super cool) until he opens his mouth, at which point his voice measures the disconnect between the world he inhabits and the utopia he dreams. He’s among the best Tonys I’ve seen. Anywhere. Kringer is going to be a star. Pinch me, please, that this New Yorker’s first big break came in a show he performed here in Milwaukee.

Jeffrey Kringer as Tony in Milwaukee Rep’s production of West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

6. Yael Lubetzky’s Lighting Design: Lubetzky’s outstanding design is as dark as this musical’s themes, even as the characters are teased with continual hints that there’s light within these shadows – and that this darkness precedes a dawn. When Tony and Maria bask for their fleeting moments of happiness in Lubetzky’s soft glow, the surrounding gloom makes such time-outs all the more poignant. That pervasive gloom also underscores how vulnerable and isolated light can be, in a darkening world which leaves no room for love.

The ensemble of Milwaukee Rep’s West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

7. Seamless Transitions: Clements’ smooth transitions are both a personal obsession for him and a trademark of his productions; when his productions click, they move cinematically even as they play theatrically. Aided by Lubetzky, scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins’ readily movable pieces, and a hard-working cast that whisks those pieces on and off the stage, Clements outdoes himself, here. This is a West Side Story that moves as fast as the young people at its core, all of whom are watching a world spinning out of control and beyond them.

8. Color Conscious Casting: How wonderful to see a West Side Story where the Puerto Rican characters are all played by Latinx actors – and where the most prominent among them carry themselves with innate dignity rather than falling into stereotypes. I’m looking at you, José-Luis Lopez, Jr. (Bernardo). And you, Carlos A. Jimenez (Chino). And especially you, Courtney Arango, as an Anita who didn’t just sweep me away when you sang and danced. You also won my respect because you managed to balance fierce pride with grace, and smoldering passion with restraint. Your Anita is the most self-possessed and regal character in this production.

Courtney Arango and members of the West Side Story ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

9. I Just Met a Girl Named Maria: Like Juliet, Maria must negotiate the difficult transition in this show from playing an innocent child to embodying a woman who has more moral authority than anyone else in the room. Liesl Collazo delivers; her Maria credibly morphs from playful girl to war widow, aided and abetted by an effective framing device suggesting a memory play. Collazo’s Maria is cursed with the double vision of one wise beyond her years: Even as she lives her dream, part of her knows that this dream will be deferred.

Left to right: Isabella Abel-Suarez, Liesl Collazo, Mara Cecilia and Brooke Johnson in Milwaukee Rep’s production of West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

10. Dan Kazemi and His Six-Person Band: I wouldn’t trade my experience last spring, listening to more than forty Chicago Lyric musicians play the West Side Story score Leonard Bernstein actually wrote; even on Broadway these days, an orchestra half that size is becoming rare. But as the mind-blowing, Tony-winning Broadway Oklahoma! is currently demonstrating, a smart music director can deliver a satisfying score with far less. The Broadway Oklahoma! has seven musicians; Dan Kazemi again works wonders for Milwaukee Rep by making West Side Story sing with six. Kazemi honors the dictum that form follows content: like Lubetzky’s lighting and the kids being illuminated, Kazemi’s musicians channel what it means to be a point of light in a world going dark. I was particularly taken with Eric Segnitz’s violin, with its unbearably plaintive cry for love and understanding in a world of violence and hate.

11. “Cool” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”: That violence and hate curdle into despair in this production’s rendition of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” There’s almost nothing comic about it in this West Side Story, just as there’s little that’s calm in this cast’s tense and nervy rendition of “Cool.” In “Cool,” Kazemi’s band and Rua’s choreography suggest the pent-up energy of a kettle about to boil; in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” that energy explodes outward, spewing rage. It’s terrifying, but it rings true – in the 1957 when this musical debuted, and today in 2019.

The ensemble of Milwaukee Rep’s West Side Story. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All the more reason to honor the many moments in this show – all of them given the room they need by Clements – when love triumphs. All the more reason to celebrate a production, which nevertheless insists that all of this musical’s many young people, are more alike than different. All the more reason to be grateful for this production, period. West Side Story may be more than sixty years old. But Clements never lets us forget that it tells a tale about the way we live now.

I cop to being a West Side Story geek; I already have my tickets for the revival that opens on Broadway next February, and I eagerly await Steven Spielberg’s redo of the classic movie, coming our way late next year (December 18, not that I’m counting). I hope they’re great. I already know the West Side Story in Milwaukee is.

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee-based writer and dramaturg. A theater reviewer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for 15 years, he served as the paper’s chief drama critic from 2009-18. He is currently a member of the Advisory Company for Forward Theater in Madison.