By Bill Beard
A few weeks ago, we alerted you Stateline theatre-lovers about a new (to me) professional theatre venue in the area, Aurora’s beautifully restored Paramount. Their Broadway at the Paramount series is extremely popular; I reviewed their show, Hairspray, starring Rockford’s own E. Faye Butler.
After thoroughly enjoying covering that show, I was wondering if they would live up to that first impression with their current production of West Side Story. Well, let me begin by immediately assuring you that I am even more impressed!
I have reviewed this magnificent old musical several times in the past 10 years, and I am always thrilled by it, especially because of its seemingly timeless significance. The basis for its original story, of course, comes from Shakespeare’s ageless tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, which dealt so meaningfully with the prejudice and rivalry within two families in 16th century Verona, Italy. When Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents began working on a new musical, they brought in a then young composer, Stephen Sondheim, and an already prominent choreographer, Jerome Robbins as their team.
It was Robbins who came up with the original idea of a modern, urban Romeo and Juliet, adding the ethnic/racist warring street gangs. This was 1957, in the midst of the sinister McCarthy Communist manhunt. Robbins himself had been terrorized into naming ’suspects’ among his Hollywood friends to be added to McCarthy’s infamous “blacklist”. Arthur Laurents once explained the atmosphere of that time: “That kind of bigotry and prejudice was very much in the air. It was really, ‘How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?’”
West Side Story tells that exact story, dealing with the ethnic discrimination and rivalry between two New York street gangs, the local American Jets and the immigrant Puerto Rican Sharks. The story revolves around a Puerto Rican girl named Maria, whose brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks. But Maria falls in love with Tony, who’s in the opposing Jets.
Supporting Maria is Bernardo’s sister, Anita, who is torn between her devotion to Maria and her love for her brother; and supporting Tony is best friend and Jets leader, Riff.
When the inevitable ‘rumble’ erupts and the choice of weapons goes from fists to knives, the resulting tragedy ends in death.
Echoes of “How can love survive in a violent world of prejudice?” Right?
That axiom has rung true throughout history, long before Shakespeare; and unfortunately, throughout much of our present existence. It seems obvious to me that our much-loved America is currently suffering from that sort of threat; exemplified by the current “war” over immigration and the increasing evidence of lingering racial discrimination. Ergo my feeling that West Side Story is relevant and timely and applies perceptively to our current social and political atmosphere.
The Paramount’s Artistic Director Jim Corti has summed it up perfectly in his program’s Director’s Notes: “….our contemporary reality is brutal. In Shakespeare’s star-crossed tale, Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths end the feud. Not so in our daily lives. How and when will the killing end? Is there any hope for us?“
Actually, his production of West Side Story will certainly contribute to an appreciation of the beauty of performance art, and thereby possibly a bit to the restoration of hope.
Mr. Corti has put together a fantastic cast and design team. Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet’s basic metal skeleton set (which combines chain link fencing, ladders, hanging catwalks, etc.) serves easily for all scenes; and Jesse Klug’s lighting effects, coupled with Mike Tutaj’s projections, are magnificent; not just brilliantly effective, but grandly contributory; so that all visual elements mesh into a consistent and appropriate illusion.
The large and carefully chosen cast is ably helmed by handsome Will Skrip as Tony. Well known for his work in other Chicago venues, his singing voice is gorgeous; his rendition of the favorite song, Maria, exceptional. His precise but smooth vocal control throughout the show revealed excellent training. As did the lovely lyric voice of Zoe Nadal, making her Paramount debut as Maria. A recent graduate of Northwestern University, her youthfulness was fragile and the love scenes wistful but exciting. Their duets were musically inspiring; from the uplifting Tonight to the almost prayerful One Hand, One Heart and in the plaintiff Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us) their voices were magnificent.
The supporting roles of Bernardo (Alexander Aquilar) and Riff (Jeff Smith) were solid, with consistent and intense involvement. Mr. Smith’s handling of the opening Jet Song was a strong beginning and his interpretation of Cool was indeed just that, cool.
But I especially found the performance of Ms. Mary Antonini in the role of the fiery Anita to be right on target. Her extensive experience, from California’s La Jolla Playhouse to Florida’s Asola Rep, and three seasons with The Stratford Shakespeare Festival, allowed her the ability to give a controlled, but nuanced performance, with all the flexibility demanded by the role; from the exhilaration of the spirited America and the dramatic A Boy Like That, to her poignant scene being manhandled by the Sharks. All was in control.
But this is also a dance show! And this was a cast of superb dancers! Productions of West Side Story often claim to have ’reproduced’ the original Jerome Robbins choreography; and sometimes they come close. But Mr. Corti has wisely given Choreographer William Carlos Angulo (whose name should appear in much larger letters in the credits) the freedom to create some astounding new choreography, much more in keeping with the stark realism and power of the production’s dark, violent undertone, aided also by the “dance violence design” by R&D’s Victor Bayona and Richard Gilbert. The result is truly compelling. With one exception: the long dance section in the middle of There’s A Place For Us seemed as though it belonged in some other show. Frankly, if allowed, that section could be dropped entirely.
Mr. Corti has made some interesting adjustments to be more in line with his concept. One brilliant move was his overlaying of the brutal rumble scene at the end of Act I, with foreshadowing of the light, carefree brightness of I Feel Pretty from the beginning of Act II. The juxtaposition is amazingly effective. The effect on the act ending is extraordinary.
There is one other interesting change: the Officer Krupke scene here is no longer comic relief; it is cruel but controlled, with a threatening chilliness. It worked for the most part; but I’m not sure it’s worth the sacrifice of the comic relief. But the changes give the overall production a new depth to explore.
For a long time now I have been encouraging Stateline theatre enthusiasts to broaden horizons by traveling to other nearby quality theatres, explore new opportunities. Broadway at the Paramount should be at the top of your list! It’s an easy drive, down I-39 and then I-88 over to Aurora. The Paramount is an absolutely gorgeous theatre, beautifully restored, every bit as spectacular as the Coronado. It’s worth the trip on its own. But the caliber of the shows is of such high quality that the whole venture will seem like a prize reward. Go!
West Side Story plays through April 24. For information, phone 630-896-6666 or go to paramountaurora.com.