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When Stephen Sondheim appeared on Fresh Air in 2010, host Terry Gross asked him what he’d learned from working with composer Leonard Bernstein more than 50 years earlier on West Side Story, Sondheim’s first Broadway show. Bernstein “was never afraid to fall off the top rung of the ladder,” Sondheim said. “And I learned by implication that the worst thing you can do is fall off a low rung. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a huge one.”
Signature Theatre’s lusty revival of West Side Story—a Brylcreem riff on Romeo and Juliet, you’ll recall—is huge, but it’s no mistake. With a cast of 30 and an orchestra of 17, it’s the biggest show yet shoehorned into Signature’s cozy 276-seat space. Misha Kachman’s set, with the audience on three sides, is minimal, and with good reason: Parker Esse’s energetic update of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography needs all the floor space director Matthew Gardiner can give it. This terse, physical West Side Story feels like a jewel-toned motion blur, and that’s a feature, not a bug. The perimeter balconies (one of which supports the musicians) have been extended with scaffolds that members of the warring Jets and Sharks—a white gang and a Puerto Rican one, respectively; you know this, right?—stamp around noisily, as though clambering up fire escapes.
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When Lieutenant Schrank (John Leslie Wolfe), the cop charged with keeping the peace, tells Shark leader Bernardo (Sean Ewing), “I got the badge. You got the skin. It’s tough all over,” it’s apparent that the tale of star-crossed lovers violating racial taboos needs no updating from its Eisenhower-era milieu. Wisely, Gardiner has done nothing to try to make it topical, allowing this to exist as a fever dream of unchecked adolescence. (This production doesn’t even use the dialogue that Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda translated into Spanish for the 2009 Broadway revival that had its trial run here in D.C. at the National Theatre seven years ago.)
If West Side Story felt sexy and dangerous in 1961—when Robert Wise’s film version claimed 10 Academy Awards, more than any musical before or since—it must have seemed quaint just six years later. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner replaced it as the Best Picture-nominated interracial love story du jour, and other contenders Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate made West Side Story’s finger-snapping violence and sexuality look like Sesame Street. Bernardo and his Jet counterpart Riff (Max Clayton, a square-jawed Dennis Quaid look-alike), engage in endless negotiations to arrange their clans’ “rumble” in “the park,” and if it sounds more like they’re arranging an orgy than a street fight, at least it isn’t dull.
As with so many professional productions of Romeo and Juliet, this would be even better if it were possible to cast actors for the teen roles closer to 15 years old than to 35, but no one in the large cast is subpar. Natascia Diaz has played the key role of Anita—Bernardo’s paramour, who tries, disastrously, to make peace—in numerous productions since the ’90s. Would you rather have a younger actor in the part? Not if you’ve heard Diaz sing “America.” The grown-ups actually playing grown-ups—Bobby Smith’s Doc, Russell Sunday’s feckless lawman Officer Krupke, and Wolfe—are all solid. As Tony and Maria, whose mutual attraction overrules their tribal loyalties, Austin Colby and MaryJoanna Grisso are good enough to make you hope for a happier ending. ‘Tis the season for conservative revivals of classic musicals. Here’s one that delivers the goods.
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40–$96. (703) 820-9771. sigtheatre.org.