Respond with Crickets: The Muny's West Side Story renders everything still

Aug 8, 2013 at 4:00 am
West Side Story ends the season majestically.
West Side Story ends the season majestically. Larry Pry/The Muny

In Act Two of Shakespeare's Cymbeline (which to my knowledge has never been adapted into a Broadway musical), the cowardly Iachimo hides in a bedroom trunk in order to spy on a sleeping woman. As he stealthily emerges from the trunk, Iachimo whispers that "the crickets sing." The line suggests how still the night is, as crickets (and cicadas) are at their most musical in the absence of competing noise. So it was that the insects were singing up a deafening storm this week during the final scene of the Muny's West Side Story. As the still-poignant musical drama about gang warfare in 1950s New York City reached its breathless climax, rapt patrons remained glued to their seats. No one will be rudely slipping out of the Forest Park amphitheater ahead of the curtain call this week.

West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet, transposed to 1957 Manhattan. In his 2010 memoir Finishing the Hat, lyricist Stephen Sondheim writes, "For most people West Side Story is about racial prejudice and urban violence, but what it's really about is musical theater. It's about the blending of book, music, lyrics and, most important, dance, into the seamless telling of a story." Sondheim is right. Yes, the evening is fraught with emotion, but mostly we respond to the satisfaction of seeing craft transmuted into musical-theater art.

At age 56 West Side Story is to theater as The Nutcracker is to ballet. It is an established set piece, showing its age, yet not to be arbitrarily tinkered with. The Sondheim lyrics have become old friends; the Leonard Bernstein score (gorgeously rendered by the Muny Orchestra, sensitively conducted by James Moore) retains its kinetic richness, especially when compared to the scores Broadway is turning out today. Jerome Robbins' virile choreography is now iconic. The daunting challenge for the Muny staff is to be true to these timeworn components while still making the show feel fresh.

Director Gordon Greenberg's playbill biography does not reference West Side Story, so it's unclear if he has staged this musical before, but there is a sense here that Greenberg has grown up loving West Side Story yet wanted to approach it as if for the first time. (Does Maria always appear like a vision at the end of "Something's Coming"?) Among Greenberg's many deft touches, he restores the shimmering sound of chainlink fences, which was one of Robbins' major contributions to the original production but which has been overlooked in recent revivals.

The startling scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan is a marvel. Finally someone has found a creative use for the Muny's antiquated scenery booms. Here, the booms don't move the scenery; they are the scenery. These steel tenements include a bridge (that morphs into balconies), thus doubling the playing space. Choreographer Chris Bailey adapts Robbins' original dance routines in inventive new ways. The Jets and Sharks veritably explode in a series of dazzling ballet and jazz pieces, yet the pace is so brisk that the evening feels brief.

But even if all the cylinders are spinning at full throttle, as they are here, that's still not enough to guarantee a transcendent evening. Enter Ali Ewoldt, a pitch-perfect Maria. Ewoldt's innocent yet coy portrayal of a radiant child on the cusp of maturity is a beguiling wonder. There is nothing of the performer about her; she looks like a waif plucked off the street. But as both actress and singer, she has total command of the role. Ewoldt's understated bravura embodies Sondheim's phrase "the seemless telling of a story."

When at evening's end Maria holds the dying Tony (Kyle Dean Massey) in her fragile arms and sings the word "somehow" directly into his face, as if the urgency of her voice might restore him to life, even the crickets in the onstage trees are stilled. This is musical theater at its most sublime and majestic. Surely it's no accident that West Side Story is the final offering of this Muny summer. What show could follow it?