The dazzling footwork in the Muny's season opener, West Side Story, is no accident: Director Kevin Backstrom's program bio states that he is one of "two people authorized to re-create the original direction and choreography."Back in 1957, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins astonished Broadway audiences with this groundbreaking musical, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet with street gangs. By fusing elements of classical ballet (a corps, pas de deux) with modern-dance maneuvers (arms outstretched, sky-high stag leaps), Robbins made these thuggish teens lithe and enthusiastic -- that is, when they weren't sounding like latter-day Damon Runyon characters. (Arthur Laurents' book dates the most egregiously; Stephen Sondheim's lyrics, particularly on "Officer Krupke," are still daring and witty.) And Backstrom, if he did the casting, definitely favored jams over chops. Happily, the music direction by Allan Lewis, with nearly three dozen instrumentalists, is just as traditional -- the syncopated jazz-inflected numbers are as brassy as composer Leonard Bernstein intended.
As the Romeoesque Tony, Eric Kunze has an ardent affect, and in his big numbers, "Tonight," and "Maria," his operatic style seems to hark back to an even earlier era. Given the size of this stage, it wouldn't be surprising that Tony, who's the real ingenue here, decided to overemote, just to fill the space, but Kunze holds back. Alas, the Juliet stand-in, the Puerto Rican Maria (Sara Uriarte Berry), is constrained by a ver-r-r-ry the-e-e-ck ex-cent that miraculously disappears when she sings (the same speech pathology happens to Anita, played by Laurie Gamache). Despite this transformation, she's convincing as an innocent led astray, especially when urging Tony to stop the inevitable rumble. This scene, the closer for a very long Act 1, was stunning and surprising, and the accidental deaths of the principals were gorgeously choreographed. The gang filled the stage -- these kids are constantly running from one end to another -- and when they come together for the fatal moment, their stillness is measured. Overall, these were fabulous Jets and Sharks. Noah Racey's Riff got incredible height on his leaps (as did David Patrick Ford as Action), and David Marques' Bernardo had a sinuous menace.
And the production had plenty to look at: James Wolk's scenic design was quite clever -- enormous scrims of desolate tenements, with panels that opened to make two-sided playing areas (Doc's store, Maria's bedroom). But why oh why has Robert Fletcher (whose program notes indicate his career began in the '40s and who thus lived through this period) costumed them so vaguely and unmenacingly? The gang members' color schemes seem quite deliberately lifted from 1950s Fords and Chevys -- not a one of which rumbles through this West Side. The Sharks wear a magenta spectrum, whereas the Jets are in blue/green ... except when they aren't (and, no, the "Jets" and "Sharks" letters on the back of the jackets are no help if you're in the ozone section). The two-tone jackets were more strikingly reminiscent of Reagan-era ski parkas than the streetwear of Eisenhower's America. The girls' pedal-pushers were a variety of lengths, and the boys wore regular Levi's -- which couldn't have been the most comfortable garb for this kinetic musical. Still, if you're going to partake of the Muny -- and some 12,000 of you can every night there's a show -- this faithful "re-creation" provides plenty to look at.
Continues through June 25.