Sometimes, simply following stage directions can seem revolutionary.
The Jets in "West Side Story" have traditionally been cast as a white gang, even though the musical's text says they are "an anthology of what is called 'American.' " So Guthrie Theater artistic director Joseph Haj has cast a diverse mosaic of talents for his revival of the 61-year-old musical, then infused it with the imaginative and fierce work of Cuban-American choreographer Maija García.
The result is a thrilling and captivating production about young strivers trying to hold onto turf.
Although the story may be familiar, it's timely in an era when both gangs and immigrants are part of the daily news. "West Side Story" resets "Romeo and Juliet" on New York's Upper West Side in the late 1950s. Instead of clashing Capulets and Montagues, we have rumbling Americans: the upstart Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (Marco Antonio Santiago), and the longer-tenured Jets.
In this setting, lovers Maria (Mia Pinero), who is Bernardo's younger sister, and onetime Jet Tony (Marc Koeck) find themselves pulled between their hearts and other loyalties.
The Ordway did a solid production of "West Side Story" just over a year ago, full of pizazz and zest. Haj's staging is less about showbiz, and more about the harder truths here.
Choreographer García, best known for her work on the Broadway show "Fela!," has energized the musical with dynamic new movement. The tense opening, where the leaping Jets and tumbling Sharks square off, is a thrilling showstopper. García braids together contemporary, street and concert dance, even as she nods to the finger-snapping choreography of the show's original director, Jerome Robbins.
Otherwise, much of the show remains the same. Leonard Bernstein's gorgeous score is conducted with romance, wit and verve by Mark Hartman. Also unchanged is the dialogue by Arthur Laurents and the clever lyrics by Stephen Sondheim that, alas, still feel grimly immediate though they were written to reflect the cultural divides of 1957. Walking into a tense scene, Police Lt. Schrank (a gruff Terry Hempleman) tells Bernardo to "get your trash outta here." He's talking about people.
The show has an excellent cast. Koeck plays the conflicted heartthrob Tony with oodles of charisma and heart. His "Maria" sounds alluring and dreamy. And he has great chemistry with Pinero, a Streisand-esque singer and affecting actor. Santiago brings strength and dignity to Bernardo. Ana Isabelle is pitch-perfect as Anita, Bernardo's girlfriend and Maria's confidante, delivering electrifying performances of "America" and "A Boy Like That."
Other standouts include Darius Jordan Lee as Jets leader Riff, Lamar Jefferson as hothead Action and Tyler Michaels (who played Tony at the Ordway) as Snowboy.
The work of the design team, from Bradley King's neon-like lighting to Christopher Acebo's brooding scenography, all combine effectively to transport us into the action.
"West Side Story" establishes a new mark for Haj, who is finally showing his mastery of the Guthrie's thrust stage as he completes his third year at the region's flagship theater. He and his team have given "West Side Story" not just new kicks, but new wings. Gorgeous and breathtaking, this production soars.
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West Side Story
Who: Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents. Directed by Joseph Haj.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; 1 & 7:30 p.m. Sat.; 1 & 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Aug. 26.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $34-$92. 612-377-2224, guthrietheater.org.