So expectations for the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production of the rarely staged classic, which opened on Sept. 21, were high. The set design – fire escapes and soot-blackened scaffolding criss-crossed the stage, bringing a slice of the Big Apple to Cream City – looked good. And we all knew that Mark Clements, who is celebrating 10 years at the Rep this season, would have a vision for the production. But could the cast deliver on it?
They could, and they did.
When Jeffrey Kringer (Tony) began singing his first big number, “Somethings Coming,” audience members literally sat up a little straighter in the chairs. His voice was as clear as cut glass, and plaintive enough to elicit all the pathos that the script requires. And Liesl Collazo dazzled as Maria, bringing welcome lightness and effervescence to scenes that might have otherwise been weighed down by the seriousness of the show’s subtext. The chemistry between the two was palpable too. And when tragedy finally befell the star-crossed lovers, as we all knew it would, the contrast between Collazo’s first scenes and her lasts were heart-wrenching.
The secondary characters shone as well. Courtney Arango (Anita) and the rest of the Shark girls transformed “America” into a toe-tapping, technicolor wonder. Jacob Burns (Riff) and Jose-Luis Lopez Jr. (Bernardo) brought a crackling tension to their verbal, as well as physical, scraps. And Jonathan Wainwright, who’ll be returning to the Rep as Scrooge in the theater’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol in November, played Lieutenant Schrank with an icy malice – cooly reminding audience members, in the process, that prejudice is as much a part of the fabric of American life now as it was in 1957.
A large part of the play’s enduring appeal has always been its raw physicality. In his review of the original show for the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote “Idea-man Jerome Robbins has put together, and then blasted apart, the most savage, restless, electrifying dance patterns we’ve been exposed to in a dozen seasons.” And the word “electrifying” could also be used to describe the choreography Jon Rua created for the sizable cast. Rua may be best-known for serving as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s understudy in the original Broadway production of Hamilton. But he also helped choreograph both Hamilton and In the Heights for Miranda. And he brought the same sense of frantic, frenetic energy that propelled those plays to multiple Tony awards to the Rep’s stage on Saturday.
We got the sense, as we watched the cast members spin and stab their way through the show’s many song-and-dance numbers, that they weren’t just going through the motions. The sweat that shone across their brows as they hurled themselves across the stage with youthful abandon was real. And the joy and sadness that lit up their eyes read as real too, making the show one of the brightest and most compelling season openers the Rep has put on in years.
West Side Story plays through Oct. 17. For ticket information, visit the theater’s website, or call 414-224-9490.