‘West Side Story’ review: This pretty, stirring musical is more relevant than ever

“What if we can get rid of the New York City gangsters?”

“This is our way of fighting back.”

The opening line of the 1961 Broadway musical “West Side Story” told us everything we need to know about the poetic, magnificent piece of American culture.

And what could be more appealing than using that simplistic image to tell a story about our own city?

“West Side Story” travels across a troubled America in the 1950s in a new revival and is a breezy pleasure. Steven Spielberg directed and serves as one of the producer’s with Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein on writing duty. Menken’s score, based on Bernstein’s screenplay, sets the action in contemporary terms and occasionally nods toward the realism of the story. There are bouncy songs and a dance score that is sometimes a little corny, but overall “West Side Story” is a wonderful production, full of long, foot-stomping segments.

Cast members will exit stage left, sometimes at the first gunshot, at around the 20-minute mark, then come back as three out of five will eventually take the stage to sing a solo from opposite sides of the stage. One of them is the common link among them: Natalie Bass, who sang Tony’s popular “I Feel Pretty” in the Broadway production and here (along with her real-life husband Gideon Glick), sings “America” while riding around on the back of a horse.

With choreography by Sergio Trujillo (“In the Heights”), the classic, upbeat tunes like “Tonight” and “Somewhere” are refreshed and yet remain powerful. Jessica Ransom’s commanding singing comes from Maria, the teenager whose death (accidentally or not) is the inciting incident of the plot. Lauren Kane is a fetching, strong-voiced Anita, who has the relationship with Tony that illuminates the plot and shape the romance between them. Forges Young is mesmerizing as Marty, a Cuban hustler who is her “trampoline” — or, more accurately, her jumping rope. Matthew S. Schwartz is a rumbling, impetuous Bernardo and Anthony Suess looks handsome and is vocal as the rebellious Riff.

Seeing “West Side Story” made me wish we could have seen it at the original Broadway production. It may be that while it is certainly performed well in D.C., it really, really should be back on Broadway.

“West Side Story” is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Nov. 18. Tickets are $79-$199. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

Leave a Comment