It’s been 18 years since Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse staged West Side Story, and the show was overdue for a revival. That last one was handled by director-choreographer Brett Smock, who has since become producing artistic director of the whole shebang. So if Smock was going to turn over this choice assignment, the opening production of the season, to someone else, it had to be somebody who had his utter confidence.
Enter Parker Esse, whose directing-choreographing credits run a mile long. A recent assignment was staging Sweet Charity at the Shaw Festival of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, the gold standard in these parts.
Esse introduces perhaps a dozen innovations and tweaks, but he also knows that the esteem for the 58-year-old West Side Story remains so high he has no need to reinvent anything. As soon as Riff (Michael Warrell) and the gang glide in with “When You’re a Jet,” we’re securely placed in the fantasy world where supposed street thugs prefer jazz to rock and sing G-rated lyrics, such as “when the spit hits the fan.” West Side Story’s secrets are open to everyone: It’s the perfectly balanced fusion of the highbrow and the popular, Shakespeare on the streets, pop opera on Broadway and especially modern dance for the masses.
Even though West Side Story unites four massive talents — including composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents — the program still credits choreographer Jerome Robbins with the original conception. And sure enough, as good as everything is under Esse’s hand, this West Side Story still feels primarily like a dance show with dialogue and musical intervals.
Music director Jose Simbulan leads an orchestra of 10, with brass and woodwinds, driving the narrative of several wordless sequences, especially the violent ones like the first act’s “Rumble” and the second act’s “Taunting Scene.” The rhythms grab hold of your viscera but never drown out Sondheim’s lyrics.
Not for nothing has West Side Story been appropriated by opera houses, more than any other commercial show of the last 60 years. We always knew the quintet “Tonight” in the first act was inspired by Giuseppe Verdi. Taking on the roles of Tony (Daniel Berryman) and Maria (Kim Corbett) means to invite comparisons with the likes of Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa.
Both Berryman and Corbett are ready to take that on but bring the additional advantages of romantic good looks and youthful athleticism. Along with their mature and polished vocal powers, they look like youngsters a year or two beyond the characters’ ages. The love story at the center of it, “One Hand, One Heart,” all sounds believable and compelling.
Anita, Maria’s mentor, a saucy soubrette, is supposed to be a bit older, and Penelope Armstead-Williams has played this role several times before arriving in Auburn. She will take no guff from naïve nationalists in her first big number, “America,” an ethnic explosion that has to stop the show, and does. In her second number, “A Boy Like That,” perhaps the least remembered from the score, Armstead-Williams pours out her sisterly love for the doomed Maria.
Producing artistic director Smock has continued the Ed Sayles policy of painstaking selection of the right people, some professional, some from collegiate programs, in supporting roles.
A small but telling change here is in the conception of Anybodys (Jennifer Gruener), usually the sexless, almost anonymous Jet wanna-be. Commentators often see her as a projection of Robbins’ and Laurents’ unhappy memories of teen rejection. Ms. Gruener, in contrast, is a striking short-haired blonde who draws the audience’s eye. She’s also a high-flying gymnast that Esse often puts at the front of the chorus. Smoke on your pipe and put that in.
Photo: Penelope Armstead-Williams, Liz Beres and Elyse Niederee in Merry-Go-Round Playhouse’s West Side Story. Bjorn Bolinder photo.
West Side Story at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, May 27 – June 17. Call the box office at 315‑255‑1785 or toll free at 1‑800‑457‑8897.