As iconic as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is for its star-crossed-lover syndrome, what makes it so iconic is that it’s a commentary on prejudice. This commentary has been replicated throughout the ages and the effort resulted in “West Side Story,” which is basically the equivalent of dropping “Romeo and Juliet” into 1950s New York gangs. The narrative has important messages that remain crucial in our daily context, and while it’s possible that we’re ready for a fresh adaptation, the overarching message delivers a punch that breaks down eras.
In their production of “West Side Story,” the Grand Theatre Company puts on a compelling show about understanding personal stakes and purpose in cultural identity. The story takes place over the course of a couple of days, with Tony (Dayne Cade) and Maria (Barbara Camara) falling in love at, you guessed it, first sight. Tony belongs to the gang known as the Jets, although he realizes that the rich relationships he craves do not depend on his connection to this gang and stays somewhat removed from them as a mediator. Maria, having immigrated to America from Puerto Rico, has a close relationship with her brother, Bernardo (Alek Hernandez), and his gang of Puerto Rican Americans, the Sharks. After catching Tony and Maria together at a dance that both gangs have gathered at, Bernardo becomes infuriated and tensions rise. The two groups set up a “rumble” which ends with the leaders of both gangs dead. Bernardo, having been killed at the hand of Tony, was sent by Maria to deescalate the situation. The lovers reconcile and dream of a “somewhere” where they can live in peace. Naturally, that place turns out to be Maria’s bed. If you’ve seen Shakespeare’s play, then you can guess where the play turns next, and no, it doesn’t involve poison, but yes, it does involve death and one of the most moving speeches in contemporary theater.
The energy in this particular production from Grand Theatre Compay isn’t consistent. While individual actors elevate the performance to exciting levels, not every scene delivers. Luckily, a few performances, especially by minor characters, saved some sleepy scenes. The leader of the Jets, Riff (Brock Dalgleish), and Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita (Whitney Harris), in particular, embraced their parts with skillful zeal and helped to establish the tone of the show. Anybody’s (Kailey Green) beautifully captured the number “Somewhere,” and created wonderful ambiguity that gave new layers to this role. The cast of the Jets also hit the audience over the head with their performance of “Gee Officer Krupke,” surprising with their humor and talent. The romance itself felt cute if questionable, probably due to its original story. Not many modern romances seem to capture hopeless romance. A realistic romance that slowly spawns and survives outweighs the spontaneous combustion of the heart. The actors carried their roles well though, embodying both the teenage silliness and the mature passion.
In looking at the death resulting in this musical, the blame game gets easy. Even as a spectator, who should know better, pointing fingers feels natural. The final monologue points to the true cause — hate created by misunderstanding. It’s a theme we’ve heard ad nauseam, but clearly, one we haven’t learned from. I don’t have to point out American apathy. When was the last time we talked about Puerto Rico? It’s still circulating in the news, but chances are you won’t hear about it if you just look at the top stories. I’d recommend seeing this musical. It’s an American classic with an incredible score and a crucial message.
“West Side Story” will be showing at the Grand Theatre until June 8. You can purchase tickets here.