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REVIEW: Stylized New West Side Story Beauty to Behold (Guthrie Theater)

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of West Side Story. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

The Guthrie Theater’s new production of the classic musical West Side Story is many things. The heavily stylized production is brilliantly adapted to the Wurtele Thrust Stage, features sparkling new choreography by Maija Garcia, and is generally lovely to behold. It’s also quite pleasant to listen to and lovingly lit by Bradley King.

The ending scene aside, most of the more stylized aspects of this production directed by Joseph Haj pass without incident. A handful of lines seem extra-emphasized to comment on contemporary immigration debates, which is not out of spirit with the script and score. The extensive use of nontraditional casting is spread across both the Jets and Sharks, while the trio of relative adults remain all-White. “Us vs. them” has a certain unfortunate timelessness in the context of immigration and migration.

Us-vs-Them: The Jets and Sharks face off. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

One of the great appeals of the Guthrie’s summer musicals is the proximity to the action in its thrust space. Dance numbers wheel across the space, set to tableaus like a giant hanging Statue of Liberty, different-colored fields of stars, and a profusion of flashing neon light panels. The production has a very strong visual impact; if taking photos wasn’t a no-no in theatres, people would be whipping out their smartphones to Instagram Maria’s stairway moment. Maria and Tony’s meeting is given all the oomph of a cinematic meet-cute, without feeling overly saccharine or indulgent.

Maria (Mia Pinero), and Tony (Marc Koeck) meet. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

Looks aren’t everything, but the cast is individually strong in the vocal department as well. Mia Pinero’s performance as Maria has a strong feeling of freshness and vivacity, with a pleasing voice and electric energy. Her counterpart Marc Koeck as Tony is no slouch either in the vocal department, but the pair’s voices did not mesh well in duets – the disparate widths and speeds of the vibrato was particularly distracting in “One Hand, One Heart”. Fortunately, however, most of the other numbers did not share this compatibility issue. The orchestra sound is full – some issues of too much volume at the reviewed performance were settled a few numbers in.

Marco Antonio Santiago as Bernardo makes an imposing and effective leader of the Sharks, with an onstage charisma that had many audience members nodding in agreement with some of his choicer soundbytes. Ana Isabelle’s performance as Anita is also memorable.

One side effect of the nontraditional casting is that it’s easy to lose track of who is who in the crowd fight scenes, even with the sprinkling of Jets and Sharks jackets. For better or worse, this amplifies the sense of confusion and events sweeping past the characters, perhaps setting the stage for the eventual Rumble. U. Jonathan Toppo’s fight choreography is effective and not glamorized.

The cast of the Guthrie Theater’s West Side Story in the famous song “I Feel Pretty”. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

The ending of the Guthrie’s West Side Story requires some commentary. The police arrive to find Maria gun-in-hand, standing over a body, and actively threatening bystanders – not only does she point the gun at the police themselves, but presses the gun to another character’s forehead. If you take the production at face value, you might find yourself wondering why Maria wasn’t led off in handcuffs, which is not generally the show’s takeaway. It’s an odd note to end on, but an acceptable price if you know the show.

West Side Story runs through August 26 at the Guthrie Theater’s Wurtele Thrust Stage in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine