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Paulanne Simmons

“West Side Story” Is Forever Young

"West Side Story"
Directed by Mark S. Hoebee
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Opened 5, 20016
Wed. at 7:30pm, Thurs. at 1:30pm and 7:30pm, Fri. at 8pm, Sat. at 1:30pm
and 8pm, Sun. at 1:30pm and 7pm
Tickets: Starting at $32, 973-376-4343
Closes June 26, 2016
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 5, 2016

Over fifty years after “West Side Story” opened at Broadway’s WinterGarden Theatre, the musical has achieved such iconic status that barring
a serious misstep (like translating dialogue and songs into Spanish, alanguage many in the audience do not understand), there’s not much a director can do that will seriously displease an audience.

The current crowd-pleasing production at Paper Mill Playhouse, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, features a cast of actors who are extremely talented
but not exactly household names. “West Side Story” is that kind of show: audiences will come to see it without star power.

However, a number of the actors have had previous experience with themusical. German Alexander, who plays Bernardo, is also the last Bernardo
cast by “West Side Story” book writer Arthur Laurents; Natalie Cortez is reprising the role of Anita, which she played in the 2009 Broadway revival; and Belinda Allyn is again taking the role of Maria, after playing the part in regional productions.

In fact, of the two pairs of ill-fated lovers, only Matt Doyle, whoplays Tony, is new to the role. And Mikey Winslow, who calls himself a “Paper Mill virgin” in the program, is also a virgin to the role of Tony’s friend and fellow gang member, Riff.

With a score that mixes jazz, classical and traditional Broadway music; and dance that combines muscular gymnastics with ballet steps, “West
Side Story” requires performers who are on top of their game. However, even in the most professional of productions the acting does not always measure up. Not so in this revival.

The female parts are especially strong. Allyn is an innocent and vulnerable Maria with a backbone of steel. Her anger and anguish in the final scene are breathtaking. Cortez is a fiery and sexy Anita, clearly the woman Maria will someday become.

By now the story of the deadly rivalry between the two west side gangs, the poor white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, is so well known it
hardly bears repeating that it’s loosely based on “Romeo and Juliet.” But it should be mentioned that if Leonard Bernstein’s music and Jerome Robbins’ choreography are forever young, Laurents’ dialogue and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics have not aged well.

Real life Jets and Sharks would never have spoken the dialogue Laurents gives them. And although the lyrics of songs like “I feel Pretty” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” may be catchy, even memorable, it has already been noted that few Puerto Rican girls would have said “I feel pretty and
witty and bright.” Nor would the streetwise but poorly educated Jets who make fun of Officer Krupke be conversant with Freudian theory.

When it comes to “West Side Story,” these are minor detail. Excellent productions, like the one at Paper Mill, make us forget the improbable plot and unrealistic characters so we may enter the marvelous world of song, dance and passion Laurents, Bernstein, Sondheim and Robbins have created for us.


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