In interviews, Steven Sondheim has sadly suggested that musicals—including his own—tend to date rather rapidly. PCPA Theaterfest’s deeply moving new production of West Side Story, which opens its three-week run in Solvang Friday night, July 30, indicates he may be wrong about that. This reworking of Romeo and Juliet, set on the streets of New York City in the 1950s, was created by composer Leonard Bernstein, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, writer Arthur Laurents, and young lyricist Sondheim more than a half-century ago. But in the hands of director/choreographer Michael Jenkinson, it feels remarkably fresh and urgent.
There is certainly nothing dated about the issue of street-gang violence, and the deadly seriousness of the feud between the Sharks (made up of Puerto Rican immigrants) and Jets (composed of “real Americans”) does not get lost in the stylization. The violent death of one character elicited audible gasps from the audience in Santa Maria. That visceral impact reflects the draw-you-in power of Jenkinson’s fluid staging, in which stretches of dialogue flow into songs and/or dance numbers with a superb ease and naturalness.
Jenkinson’s choreography is, appropriately, heavily indebted to Robbins, but his production is far from a slavish copy of the original. (For one thing, he flips the placement of two of the songs, heightening the impact of both.) DeAnne Kennedy’s sparse, clever visual design, which features a few iconic images such as the famous fire-escape balcony, allows for quick scene changes that give the production a seamless feel. Jim Tanner’s richly colored costumes help define the characters and heighten the emotional impact. The only real let down is the mediocre orchestra, which, under the direction of Callum Morris, doesn’t display a solid grasp of Bernstein’s remarkable score.
The cast is solid; there’s a palpable physicality to virtually all the performances, and the leads are remarkable. As the lovesick Tony, Zachary Ford opts for dramatic urgency over vocal beauty for his solo numbers, and the decision pays off: His songs come across as passionate internal monologues, full of feelings he can’t hold in one second longer. Mindy Lym, a Bay Area-based performer, simply embodies Maria: Her singing voice is gorgeous, and her transformation from hopeful innocent into angry, anguished avenger in the final scene is astonishingly compelling.