The 5th Avenue Theatre’s ‘West Side Story’ Is Poetry in Motion
In collaboration with Spectrum Dance Theater, The 5th has put up an exquisite staging of the classic Bernstein/Sondheim/Laurents musical, inspired by Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It runs through June 23.
The 5th Avenue Theatre closes out its season with one of the musical theatre canon’s most enduring works, West Side Story. Robert Wise’s film adaptation gets a bad rap in some circles (Stephen Sondheim himself is not a fan), but it’s largely an exuberant transplantation of a stage show to the screen. And I’m not sure even Ansel Elgort will be enough to ruin Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s forthcoming film version. West Side Story endures for a reason.
Hearing Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score performed live is more than justification enough to see a stage production — and the Matt Perri-led orchestra here sounds outstanding. The 5th’s staging, directed by Bill Berry, offers plenty of additional reasons.
As in previous partnerships with Spectrum Dance Theater, the dancing is exquisite. Bob Richard recreates Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, and the precision and grace of the ensemble is unfailing, from exultant, balletic Sharks-vs.-Jets street fights to the perfectly hushed restraint of “Cool,” one of several numbers where the ensemble seems to amalgamate into a single organism, moving and breathing as one.
Berry, who directed the 5th’s previous West Side Story in 2007, excels at portraying scope; the cast numbers more than 40, but it seems even larger the way the stage swells with activity. Some of the most thrilling moments in this production are the transitions: the bridal shop changing into the dance at the gym, crepe paper descending like a cinematic wipe and the stage suddenly bursting with movement, or the transformation of Maria’s private grief in her bedroom into the community’s plaintive outpouring of hope in “Somewhere.”
The vivid depiction of communities at odds, locked in a violent struggle precipitated by virulent tribalism and racist power structures, is even more elemental (and sadly, more relevant) than the Romeo-and-Juliet love story that’s the ostensible narrative engine of West Side Story. So it’s not such a dealbreaker that William Branner’s Tony and Rebekah Vega-Romero’s Maria don’t have much chemistry, landing much closer to the naïve teenager side of the spectrum than the burning passion side. Branner, whose easy tenor and crystal falsetto are stunning (his high note in “Maria” is chill-inducing), especially plays up the puppyish glee. Any longing is much more palpable when just one of them is on stage.
The show’s standout performance belongs to Danielle Marie Gonzalez, whose Anita has a defiant optimism that is slowly eroded, then cruelly stolen in the show’s most upsetting scene, a collection of Jets suddenly moving in unison against her. Even when they’re not dancing, the company moves with impressive synchronization. That’s not just a technical feat; it’s an affirmation of the show’s depiction of the power of community — and how easily it can be warped into something ugly.
West Side Story runs through 6/23 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets up to $179, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: numerous $20 rush ticket options are available; see policies here.
Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City Arts, The Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.