Sometimes putting a classic musical on a season can be an invitation to disaster, especially if, because of the physical demands of its book, score and choreography, that musical is almost, in at least one of these areas, a sure bet to fail — or at least to stumble badly.
Don’t tell that to director/choreographer Scott Michaels and the cast of the Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts production of “West Side Story,” which opened Wednesday night in the Warsaw arena theater.
I really don’t have to say more than get your tickets while there are still some available. You’ll have to wait a very long time to see as thrilling a production of this modern day “Romeo and Juliet” which, sadly, is as relevant today at it was almost 60 years ago.
Based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, a multi-award-winning director/choreographer in both musical theater and ballet, “West Side Story” offers a score by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents., all award winners in their own genres.
But having a theatrical pedigree doesn’t mean a company can just “mail it in.” In fact, the bar is set even higher and the demands are constant.
It took 10 years for Robbins to bring “WSS” to the stage and 10 years for him to assemble what turned out to be the perfect team.
In Warsaw, director Michaels already has the best choreographer in the Midwest and, in Thomas N. Stirling, a musical director who leads his 13-piece orchestra surely through the emotional nuances of Bernstein’s score.
The rest of the WW production team delivers its usual excellence in Stephen B. Hollenbeck’s character detailing (and very danceable) costumes, Sara Gosses’ mood enhancing lighting and Michael Higgins’ spare but exact set design. Sound man Chris Pollnow keeps the right balance between singer/actors and instrumentalists and production stage manage Caitlin Denney Turner and her crew make the many scene changes swiftly and silently.
All provide the perfect setting for the incredibly talented WW cast. For the original Broadway production, Robbins requested — and got — eight weeks for dance rehearsals rather than the usual four. Michaels & Co. did it in two and very obviously without missing a beat!
From the minute the Jets, led by Sean Watkinson as Riff, and the Sharks, led by Danny Burgos as Bernardo, hit the stage, the air crackles with barely contained hostility. They dance their emotions — and then they sing and dance again, holding nothing back.
Into this maelstrom, articulated by the breathtaking “Dance at the Gym,” come Tony (Jordan Andre), former leader of the Jets, and Maria (Allsun O’Malley), sister of Bernardo. It is love at first sight and their instant connection is delivered lyrically by two of the finest voices at WW this season. They more than do justice to the familiar solos and duets., especially the “Balcony Scene” (“Tonight”) and “One Hand, One Heart.”
On the fiery side is Anita (Monica Brown), Bernardo’s girl, who makes no secret of her feelings, leading the Shark girls in the wonderfully biting “America.” (NOTE: Former Wagon Wheeler Karen Olivo won a Tony Award for her Anita in the 2009 revival.)
The Jets hit the nail on the head with their view of police in “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
The powerful “Tonight” quintet, the angry “Rumble,” the haunting “Somewhere” ballet and the tragically spare finale (oh come on, you must know how this ends!!) are only a few of the familiar highlights which can be a joy to see and hear — or not.
In this production, there is no need to worry. ”Somewhere,” Robbins & Co. are smiling!
“WEST SIDE STORY” plays through June 27 in the theater at 2517 E. Center Street. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com