Frighteningly relevent West Side Story sounds glorious in Fort Worth
Overt racism, disparagement of immigrants, intense dance-offs — it's the 1950s onstage at Casa Mañana, but it might as well be 2017. A little outdated slang from Arthur Laurents' book doesn't diminish the cautionary message of West Side Story, which is still eerily relevant 60 years later.
A retelling of Romeo & Juliet set among two rival New York City gangs, West Side Story has always been able to count on Leonard Bernstein's lush score and Stephen Sondheim's incisive lyrics to transport its audience. This particular production also has Jerome Robbins' groundbreaking original choreography, meticulous re-created by Jeremy Dumont (who learned it from a Robbins assistant and danced it for years on tour). Though the athletic cast isn't always precise in their execution of the steps, it's still thrilling to see the storytelling come to life through the iconic movements.
Where the cast does consistently excel is with their singing. Broadway performer John Riddle soars during his lovestruck rendition of "Maria," while his young paramour (played delicately by Addie Morales) blends her crystalline soprano into their duets "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart."
Cassidy Stoner is lithe and feisty as Anita, who's betrothed to Maria's brother Bernardo (Sean Ewing), but her acting sometimes makes it seem as though she's in a different, more modern production. It's hard to say whether that's her choice or at the instruction of director Eric Woodall, but either way she definitely doesn't disappoint during her solos.
Dallas-Fort Worth favorite David Coffee is barely onstage as the soda shop owner Doc, but his few moments as the voice of adult, uncorrupted reason drive home the seriousness of the teenagers' hate-fueled actions (he also gets a short comic cameo near the beginning). The best to personify that simmering rage is Adam Jepson as Action, a character that doesn't often grab the spotlight with this much effectiveness.
The production wisely lets the the choreography and Samuel Rushen's gorgeous lighting design dominate the visuals. There's even a moment during the song "Cool" where the dancers' silhouettes seem to overtake the huge, dome-shaped interior of Casa Mañana, growing larger with each kick and crowding in on the audience from all sides. It's a spotlight side effect that heightens the scene's tension in a thrilling and unexpected way.
The same praise can't be doled out for Tammy Spencer's costumes, which separate the white Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks into black and white wardrobes. Some outfits are era-appropriate while others look as though they were just purchased from Forever 21, with the black clothing often disappearing entirely into Bob Lavallee's set. And let's not even talk about the denim nightmare that is the dream ballet.
Small quibbles aside, Casa Mañana has mounted one of the most brilliant American musicals with the care it deserves. Even more importantly, it doesn't shy away from highlighting the frightening similarities to today's social and political landscape, proving once again how powerful the arts can be at making a statement.
West Side Story at Casa Mañana runs through March 12.