Maegan McConnell and Louis Hobson
in West Side Story
(© Chris Bennion)
Maegan McConnell and Louis Hobson
in West Side Story
(© Chris Bennion)
For 50 years, connoisseurs have considered West Side Story to be one of the best musicals ever written, combining all the required elements of song, dance, and story. That may be one reason why its landmark anniversary is being celebrated with productions at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires, and Bill Berry's often exciting production of West Side Story at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.

Without question, a half-century later, the musical's power to move and challenge the audience still exists. This modern telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet marked the first -- and only -- collaboration of rare talents: librettist Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer Jerome Robbins, adding up to a truly singular experience.

While trained in modern dance, Robbins was one of a handful of choreographers who knew how to translate the power of dance into the demands of the musical story-telling model. Choreographer Bob Richards, who has danced in many productions of West Side Story, has recreated that original Broadway choreography to great effect. The jutting arm and leg movements, high-energy acrobatics, and perfect union of dance with the celebrated score, all of which are hallmarks of Robbins' work, provide the best moments of this production. Richards is ably assisted in this task by nine members of Seattle's famed Spectrum Dance Theater, who seem equally excited about this opportunity to bring this one-of-a kind choreography to life.

5th Avenue has also gone the extra mile musically. Twenty-five musicians, led by Ian Eisendrath, cram themselves into the theater's small pit to make great big wonderful sound. Martin Christoffel's set design is a versatile "black box," where furniture and walls were wheeled in and out almost like a dance in themselves. The back wall is filled with an attractively urban construct of ladders and rails to simulate balconies and double as urban parking lots, fire escapes, and other alley-style sights.

Lynda Salisbury's costume design is vibrant and colorful and flows with the dancers' bodies. The costumes for the Puerto Rican characters are especially attractive, with the Sharks looking very sharp in deep red and black and their girlfriends in jewel-colored, tango-layered dresses.

The main women in the cast are the standouts, notably the operatically trained Meagan McConnell as Maria. Manoly Farrell, as Anita, is undeniably what the theater calls a "triple threat;" unfortunately, she was under-amplified on opening night and some of her singing was lost. As Tony, Louis Hobson gave a truly strong acting performance and exhibited fine chemistry with McConnell; too bad that his voice wasn't up to the role's demands. Of the supporting cast, Sean Griffin was particularly strong in the non-singing role of Doc.

For those who feel the story may be dated, the fact is West Side Story's strong commentary on racism in our country feels very contemporary. When Tony and Maria wish that somewhere there would be a "new way of living," we realize that time has not yet come and it's not the "time for us" to be complacent.