One of the most difficult musicals to produce, with a challenging score and staging demands, West Side Story still merits the effort, delivering a cautionary tale that resonates all too well in today’s troubled times. The current production at 6th Street Playhouse gives the show an energetic and emotional rendering, reminding us why it continues to be powerful and worthwhile.
All you need to know about the plot is that it’s a modernized version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, transplanted to mid-20th century Manhattan with rival lower-class youthful gangs of whites— the Jets— and Puerto Ricans— the Sharks. When former-Jet Tony (Jonah Robinson) and Maria (Carmen Mitchell), the head Shark’s sister, fall in love, their attempts to end the feuding are doomed to failure, and tragic consequences ensue. Neither sympathetic adults (Doc, played by Al Kaplan) nor family (Bernardo, played by Christopher Shayota), nor friends (Riff, played by Brett Mollard, or Denise Elia-Yen as Anita) are willing or able to halt the train wreck we can see coming.
The struggling immigrants are blamed for stealing territory and jobs, while the impoverished whites are labeled lazy and delinquent. Authorities are no help whatsoever, as police lieutenant Schrank (Justin Thompson) fans the flames with racism and threats. Somehow 1957 doesn’t feel that long ago…
A brilliant score of haunting and catchy tunes by Leonard Bernstein deepens the impact— from the ode to love, “Maria,” to the anticipation of “Tonight,” leading to marriage vows in “One Hand, One Heart,” and the plea for a better world in “Somewhere,” we are transported in Tony and Maria’s love and hope. The big ensemble numbers for Jets and Sharks or the whole company are equally compelling, fueled by the clever lyrics of a young Sondheim making his Broadway debut.
6th Street’s production features minimal but effective sets by Jared Sorensen and nicely focused lighting by Vincent Mothersbaugh. Terrific dance choreography by Joseph Favalora and fight choreography by Marty Pistone contribute action galore and loads of superb moves by the young and enthusiastic cast.
The entire ensemble works magic onstage in the demanding vocals and staging. Carmen Mitchell has the voice of an angel— her duet with Anita in act two is a real showstopper. Elia-Yen also possesses fine vocal chops and gets to show them off in that duet and in “America.” Robinson has the requisite Tony good looks and demeanor, and carries a lot of the emotional weight of the show. His smooth tenor pairs well with Mitchell’s Maria, but suffers occasional pitch issues. Other standouts include Mollard as feisty Riff, Noah Sternhill as volatile Action, Emma LaFever as Anybodys and Sarah Cornett as Velma.
Director Jared Sakren assembled an excellent cast and production team for this challenging work, and they do it proud with outstanding performances and stage spectacle. You’ll want to see this one before Spielberg’s movie remake comes out in 2020. And remind yourself of why this is a powerful, timeless tale.
West Side Story
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Presented by 6th Street Playhouse through July 7, 2019
Thu at 7:30pm, Fri/Sat at 7:30pm, Sat/Sun at 2:00pm
Tickets: $22-35; Senior, Under-30, and Group discounts
(707) 523-4185 ext 1
Photos by Eric Chazankin