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West Side Story

Two rival gangs dance and sing their way to an infamous night in New York at Signature Theatre.

The cast of West Side Story, directed by Matthew Gardiner, at Signature Theatre.
(© Christopher Mueller)

It's not often that a theater attempts a large-scale production on a small stage, and even less so that it's successful, but Signature Theatre's staging of the American classic West Side Story — featuring 30 actors and 17 musicians in its 276-seat Max theater — is a phenomenal triumph.

With a dream creative trifecta consisting of a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story is usually a can't-miss production, but it's so much more than that here, with an intimate presentation on the intimate rectangular stage in the middle of the theatre, and an astounding orchestra that plays in the rafters.

West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of New York circa 1957, at a time when Puerto Rican immigrants are trying to make a new life for themselves. Two rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks, fight for control of the neighborhood while love ensues between Maria (Mary Joanna Grisso), the pure hermana of Bernardo (Sean Ewing), the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks and Tony (Austin Colby), cofounder of the Jets, who is in search for more from life than what his gang offers.

Grisso is delightful as the ingenue, with an angelic voice that transitions flawlessly from the fun and flighty "I Feel Pretty" to the emotionally charged "I Have a Love." Her chemistry with Colby is spot-on, and the pair mesh solidly in their duets of "Tonight" and "One Hand One Heart."

As the fiery Anita, Natascia Diaz does Rita Moreno proud and practically steals the show. Full of spunk, attitude, and electric moves, Diaz is simply amazing. While leading the girls in "America," she adds a bit of humor to her character that you don't often see. Ryan Fitzgerald, as the rebel Action, commands attention and conveys all of the street cred that a Jet member should have. His sarcastic wit in "Officer Krupke" gives the song more bite than usual. The supporting cast as a whole is engaging, especially during the dance sequences. John Leslie Wolfe deserves a mention for his bombastic Lt. Schrank, who creates a big statement with his mere presence on the stage.

Director Matthew Gardiner makes some inspired choices, including a beautifully crafted staging of "Somewhere," which utilizes the entire cast in a wondrous dreamlike alternate reality; and interconnecting the cast onstage during "Tonight" in a way that benefits the small play space. Choreographer Parker Esse mines the most out of his talented dancers, from the rousing steps of "Dance at the Gym," to the incredible shimmying in "America," to the creative antics of the Jets during "Officer Krupke," you can't take your eyes off of the moves.

Jon Kalbfleisch's orchestra makes Bernstein's music come alive in this solid rendition of the songs we all know and love. Although it drowns out some of the dialogue, especially in the dance scene at the gym, this minor error is forgivable.

West Side Story is a beloved musical full of angst, love, and sorrow. And the Signature Theatre presents it in a way that few have ever experienced before. Check it out, Daddy-O.

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