Fingers snap and fists clench in the first minutes of West Side Story and foreshadow steamy Latin and knife sharp dances yet to come. In San Diego Musical Theatre’s revival at the Spreckels Theatre through March 1, we are sent to Hell’s Kitchen in New York where the Jets and Sharks fight for territory and respect. Everyone in the neighborhood is stressed out and wants to hook up.
Jeffrey Scott Parsons is Riff, cocky leader of the Jets, the white gang. He portrayed song and dance man Phil Davis in SDMT’s White Christmas, and he gets to show his bad boy side here. Natalie Nucci is on fire in the role of Anita, girlfriend to Bernardo, leader of the Sharks, the Puerto Rican gang, played by the tall and seriously handsome Kikau Alvaro. To kick your memory into gear, Rita Moreno played Anita in the film version (1961) and won an Oscar.
Timing and chemistry are excellent when Nucci teams with Megan Flint as Rosalia and the Shark Girls in the lively tune “America.” It’s one of the few times they have fun, us too.
Don’t forget, this is a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and was a brave commentary about bigotry in the 1950s. Because it’s musical theater, we have to try and believe that grown adults in their 30s are teenagers, although this cast is more youthful and fit than you’ll find in Grease.
Jacob Caltrider plays Tony, the Jet with a moral compass, at least for an hour. He wants to quit the white gang and run off with the lovely Puerto Rican Maria.
Jessica Soza is believable as Maria, the naive immigrant with a crisp soprano voice that rocks the rafters. She was Maria for a year touring internationally and brings operatic projection to this production. I’ll bet she does not need a microphone glued to her forehead in “I Feel Pretty.” She has to tone it down in “Somewhere,” her heart-felt duet with Caltrider. He has a fine voice once he relaxes a bit.
Actors in this production have to sing and dance hard. Only Soza could reach the back of the house without an electronic boost, but then again, she doesn’t have to dance.
One could argue, what does it matter? In the film version, the late Natalie Wood didn’t even have to sing. Her parts were dubbed in by Marni Nixon. That’s not to say this cast does not sing. They do, and they give their all in songs that we love such as, “Something’s Coming,” “Tonight” and the opening “Jet Song.” There are some muddy sections when more than two voices have to compete. There are moments when you want them to rip off the microphones and just belt it out best they can. Like the old days.
”When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette till your last dyin’ day
When you’re a Jet if the spit hits the fan
You got brothers around, you’re a family man…”
The strength of this production is the glorious dance with snappy fingers and syncopation, which follows history. First conceived by director-dance legend Jerome Robbins, West Side Story, was first called East Side Story, about a street fight between Irish Catholics and Jews. The show with music by Leonard Bernstein was the first collaboration between Robbins and Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents who wrote the book. Lyricist Sondheim was a newcomer back then. Together with Bernstein, his songs unabashedly confronted racism in America. West Side Story earned Robbins a Tony Award for choreography.
In SDMT’s production, choreographer Randy Slovacek stays true to the grounded dancing that involves sexy sock hops and switchblades. Imagine a step ball change, palm to the belly, add a quick twitch and lots of anger and you’re off.
Under James Vasquez’s direction, the 31 cast members are passionate. Musical director Don Le Master fills the big theatre with a 28-piece orchestra that sounds great. Amanda Zieves’ lighting is glorious, especially streaks shining onto chain link. Sean Fanning’s set with rolling fire escapes, bedrooms, and drugstore diner completes the thrilling and relevant production.