No matter how many times this sixty-year-old treasure is parodied or its gorgeous songs are turned into elevator music, the real, full-length West Side Story is always astonishing to behold. The dense two hours of brilliant dance and exquisite songs are so good they hardly need a plot, yet they’re grafted to the grand and solid theatrical skeleton of Romeo and Juliet and convincingly set in a New York immigrant ghetto, circa 1960.
You can’t find this neighborhood now. The exact part of Manhattan’s west side where Leonard Bernstein (music), Arthur Laurents (book), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) chose to place the story was, in the late 1950s, already slated for destruction. Its inhabitants were driven out to make way for Lincoln Center, because it was felt that leaders of high culture like Bernstein didn’t have enough places to perform. The irony is dazzling, but this is too good a show to dwell on that.
As in Romeo and Juliet, the West Side love story is just the trip wire that releases an avalanche of pent-up community rage. Shakespeare makes it pretty clear that his title characters were just two naive kids waiting for some magic to happen to them. The magic happens, they pay for it, and a sadder, wiser, and somewhat healed city trudges on.
As usual, Encore Theatre brings in some ringers: out-of-town talent taking a breather from big-city stress by doing a turn in Dexter. I know that, and still, when I enter this little black box behind the Dairy Queen and a volunteer hands me a slice of a sticky note with my seat number written in ballpoint pen, I’m primed for a neighborhood “let’s put on a show!” experience. The professional production that follows always comes as a mild shock.
The star of this production is Aurora Penepacker, playing the role of Maria. She is a junior at Chicago’s Roosevelt University where Encore founder Dan Cooney now teaches. Penepacker has a soaring soprano that held the audience on the edge of their seats to see if she’d hit the optional high note at the end of “Tonight.” She hit it with a pile driver. The other crucial bit of casting in any West Side Story production is not Tony, her Romeo (played by Conan Jordan, who is fine, if sometimes a little uncertain), but Maria’s friend Anita–spicier, sexier, and wittier, a Cleopatra to her Juliet. NYC-based Marisa Rivera doesn’t hold back.
This is arguably a dancer’s musical even more than a singer’s. At least three times, Tony’s gang, the Jets, erupts into rigorous modern ballets. The costumes–the Jets in cool greens and lavenders, the rival Sharks in hot oranges and scarlets–are first-rate. The orchestra, as usual at Encore buried maddeningly behind a scrim, should strike for better placement–they’re playing some of the best music ever written for theater.
The Encore’s West Side Story runs through August 12.