You can tell that Music Theatre Wichita’s newest revival of “West Side Story” is a winner because of the number of goose-bump moments throughout the show, which retells “Romeo and Juliet” on the gang-filled mean streets of 1950s New York City as a Polish boy falls in forbidden love with a Puerto Rican girl.
Ryan Vasquez and Ali Ewoldt as star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria have arguably the best voices I’ve heard on stage to do justice to their haunting and deceptively difficult ballads, “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart” and their brief, heartbreaking reprisal of “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us).”
Vasquez also thrills with his clear, impossibly high final notes to “Maria” while Ewoldt’s “I Have a Love” is operatically beautiful but wonderfully approachable for the music theater audience. Vasquez also overcomes the wuss factor that dogs so many Tonys by never losing his underlying street toughness even though he’s turned over a new leaf. And Ewoldt is charmingly flirty to show underlying passion of a blossoming young woman.
While the two are obvious stand-outs because they are the heart of the tale, this stylish, sleek and colorful production lovingly directed by Mark Madama and exuberantly restaged by choreographer Mark Esposito after the Jerome Robbins’ original is a terrific ensemble effort where every character is allowed to be a compelling entity. There is no “chorus” supporting the leads, they are all important in their own right (which becomes evident as they take their bows in unison in the understated curtain call).
Wichita native and now Broadway professional Shina Ann Morris is a deliciously fiery dynamo as Anita, Sharks’ gang leader Bernardo’s main squeeze. It’s impossible to take your eyes off Morris as she parades and sashays around the stage, using her wiles as sex symbol and thoroughly independent woman. Her rich voice gives color to the slyly satirical “America” as well as fierce power to “A Boy Like That (Who Kills Your Brother).”
Kevin Munhall, another Wichitan who made it to Broadway, is in riveting, take-charge mode as Riff, Tony’s best friend, blood brother and successor as gang leader for the Jets. His first dance movements, which meld ballet with street, set the right tone of beauty and athleticism that characterizes Robbins’ iconic choreography, launching the show with precision. And his jocular, rallying “Jet Song” showed his vocal strength.
Michael Graceffa is a proud and macho presence as Sharks’ leader Bernardo. While he doesn’t have a solo showcase, he has considerable dance skills that show why he is a leader. Veteran local character actors Timothy W. Robu as the mean-spirited, world-weary cop Lt. Schrank and Charles Parker as too-trusting shop keeper Doc are vital adult punctuation to the youthful milieu.
Opening night was near-perfection with only a minor balance bobble at the end of the rousing dance number, “America,” and a balky cigarette lighter that refused to light, diminishing a bit of dramatic flourish. Otherwise, it was a spine-tingly, sometimes teary, often breath-taking evening swept along by the legendary Leonard Bernstein score mastered by music director Thomas W. Douglas and his 25-piece orchestra (a rarity for most Broadway shows these days).
The versatile set designed by Robert Andrew Kovach and lighted by David Neville was simplicity itself to allow maximum use of floor space for the glorious dance. There was a proscenium arch composed of steel girders, chain-link fences and brick walls that framed changing background projections of street scenes with the look of vintage post cards in moody pastels and sepia tones. Even catchier was when projections morphed from streets to stars or cloud-streaked skies for ethereal fantasy moments.
To be sure, there were occasional jolts when clouds started moving in an otherwise still-life scene, but the overall look was brilliantly conceived.