Maybe you didn’t think we needed another West Side Story so soon after the last production. The successful 2009 revival even touched down in D.C. twice, in its pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre and just last year, on tour, at the Kennedy Center.
But leave it to Signature Theatre to stage a production that reinvigorates this classic musical, giving it more relevance and resonance than ever before. Of course, anytime is a fine time to stage West Side Story (), the all-star collaboration featuring one of the best scores — by Leonard Bernstein — and some of the best choreography — by Jerome Robbins — in the entire musical cannon. Add in an acclaimed book by Arthur Laurents and clever lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim and you can understand why it’s widely considered one of the greatest musicals ever made.
A production makes a kind of intuitive sense right now, with increasing xenophobia and anti-immigration fervor, plus heightened racial tensions — especially with the police. But Signature’s achievement goes far beyond the basic storyline and themes. Unlike other Signature reinventions of classics, director Matthew Gardiner didn’t pare down the called-for 30-member cast, which is further bolstered by a standard 17-member orchestra, led by Jon Kalbfleisch. The result is the largest show Signature has ever produced. It’s also one of the most stimulating shows you’ve yet seen in Shirlington, aided by Gardiner’s choice to present it on a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides in the Max Theatre. No theatergoer is ever very far from the actors and the action. Signature’s staging, with minimal, movable set pieces by Misha Kachman, offers an unprecedented level of intimacy that, among other things, makes you appreciate even more Robbins’ astounding choreography, updated somewhat by Parker Esse.
Austin Colby leads the cast, offering a Tony in particularly fine voice. As Maria, MaryJoanna Grisso displays an impressive vibrato and is enchanting in duets with Colby, yet it’s her intense, emotional acting in the show’s climax that will stick the most. Natascia Diaz performs Anita with a degree of vivacity and a depth of feeling suggesting she hasn’t just taken the role to heart, she’s living it. From her natural comedic sass in “America” to her heartbroken “A Boy Like That,” the dynamic Diaz is a standout.
Yet Gardiner’s production overall is itself a standout: It engages you in a way that standard proscenium productions of West Side Story can’t. If this doesn’t become your favorite production of West Side Story, I would love to know where you saw it staged better.
West Side Story runs to Jan. 31 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $95. Call 703-820-9771 or visit signature-theatre.org.
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