Paper Mill Playhouse rounds out its 2015-16 season with several causes for celebration — one being its Regional Theatre Tony Award, which it will claim this Sunday night at the Beacon Theatre. The accolade comes on the heels of a season of world premieres, including its Broadway-bound production of The Bandstand and the prestigious Robert De Niro-led A Bronx Tale. West Side Story marks its final production of 2016, helmed by the theater's artistic director Mark S. Hoebee. And though the 1957 musical is a tried-and-true commodity, it proves just as award-worthy as its nascent predecessors.
Granted, the modernized Manhattan-set Romeo & Juliet story hands the theater some of the strongest material in the Broadway archives (and the production borrows James Youmans' sets and David C. Woolard's costumes from the 2009 Tony-nominated revival). With music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by Arthur Laurents, and legendary choreography by Jerome Robbins, there's a reason West Side Story has become an iconic piece of musical theater. As such, it takes a strong company to do it justice, and Paper Mill has assembled a remarkable one for its short run.
Matt Doyle and Belinda Allyn beautifully sing through Bernstein's score as Tony and Maria, who sell us their far-fetched love-at-first-sight scenario as well as any two leading players could. Doyle lends his pitch-perfect tenor to two of the show's early numbers, "Something's Coming" and "Maria," while Allyn shows off her soprano in "Tonight" and the emotional duet "A Boy Like That." They make an appealing romantic pairing — both starting the show with an oblivious childlike innocence that gradually wears away as their warring tribes tear them apart.
German Alexander meanwhile serves as a quietly authoritative Bernardo, Maria's brother and leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Mikey Winslow is equally commanding as Jets point man Riff, playing the role with a cool swagger that he carries over into his balletic dancing. Vocal and dance powerhouse Natalie Cortez rounds out the featured cast as Anita, Bernardo's love interest and Maria's confidante. She leads the female ensemble in the high-energy number "America," and in Act 2, fearlessly portrays Anita as a victim of sexual abuse (an element of the musical that many productions shy away from).
The tragic Jets vs. Sharks turf war that unfolds after Tony and Maria's star-crossed meeting at a school dance is as timeless as Shakespeare's casualty-laden Montague-Capulet feud. Yet, the racially charged battle that ignites on the Upper West Side of New York City speaks particularly pointedly to the current political climate — an unfortunate blessing to Hoebee's selection for this final slot of the season. As the "all-American" Jets, made up of second-generation immigrants, lay claim to the streets over their Spanish-speaking foes, the musical's questions of American identity ring out as if blasted through a megaphone. I'm sure West Side Story's original 1957 creative team hoped their work would be slightly less relevant in 2016. But at least a creative rendering of America's lack of social progress has landed in Paper Mill Playhouse's capable hands.