Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

West Side Story
Signature Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Bright Star, As You Like It, and Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind

Austin Colby and
MaryJoanna Grisso

Photo by Christopher Mueller
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has a reputation for putting its own spin on classic musicals, but the immersive production of West Side Story now in the MAX Theatre is different: a brilliant reinterpretation that takes the original components and uses them in unexpected ways. Director Matthew Gardiner and choreographer Parker Esse use elements of Jerome Robbins' legendary dances and direction while integrating the audience into the action.

West Side Story is the largest production in Signature's history, with a cast of 30 and a 17-member orchestra, led admirably by Jon Kalbfleisch, situated above the playing area. No audience member is more than 20 feet from the stage (the MAX seats 276), bringing the viewer into the claustrophobic streets of 1950s New York where the Jets and Sharks fight for dominance.

The MAX is an endlessly malleable black box space, which scenic designer Misha Kachman has reconfigured into a thrust stage with seating on three sides. An inspired innovation is the addition of a fire escape-like walkway (with a sliding ladder to the stage floor) above the orchestra seats, allowing the gang members to roam freely overhead, clattering as they go. Jason Lyons' lighting design adds to the emotional tension, sometimes trapping actors in a tightly focused beam.

Gardiner's direction brings out new facets in familiar characters. MaryJoanna Grisso plays Maria as a giddy child, making her transformation that much more shattering. Natascia Diaz nails Anita's pride, protectiveness, desire, and ultimate despair. Austin Colby is appealing as a pure-voiced Tony who doesn't realize he's in over his head, while Sean Ewing's Bernardo and especially Max Clayton's Riff project hard-won authority. John Leslie Wolfe conveys understated malice as the police lieutenant who feels only contempt and disgust for the members of both gangs (he hates Puerto Ricans but says the American-born Jets are the children of "tinhorn immigrant scum") and Bobby Smith scores both as philosophical Doc and floundering social worker Glad Hand.

The cast of dancing, singing actors fulfills the promise of the setting; never before has the sense of people fighting over a small piece of turf come through so visibly. Esse is working with a corps that understands the discipline behind both ballet steps and stylized violence.

Signature Theatre
West Side Story
December 8th —January 24th, 2016
Based on a conception of Jerome Robbins
Book by Arthur Laurents
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Entire original production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins
The Jets:
Tony: Austin Colby
Riff: Max Clayton
Action: Ryan Fitzgerald
A-Rab: Ryan Kanfer
Baby John: Joseph Tudor
Snowboy: J. Morgan White
Big Deal: Tony Neidenbach
Diesel: Kurt Boehm
Gee-Tar: Jacob Beasley
Graziella: Jennifer Cordiner
Velma: Colleen Hayes
Minnie: Jamie Howes
Pauline: Shawna Walker
Clarice: Cami Spring
Anybodys: Maria Rizzo
The Sharks:
Maria: MaryJoanna Grisso
Bernardo: Sean Ewing
Anita: Natascia Diaz
Chino: DJ Petrosino
Pepe: Ryan Sellers
Indio: Michael Graceffa
Luis: Eric Rivas
Anxious: Zachary Norton
Rosalia: Katie Mariko Murray
Consuelo: Olivia Ashley Reed
Teresita: Jasmine Alexis
Francisca: Ilda Mason
The Adults:
Doc: Bobby Smith
Lieutenant Schrank: John Leslie Wolfe
Officer Krupke: Russell Sunday
Glad Hand: Bobby Smith
Directed by Matthew Gardiner
Choreography by Parker Esse, based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins
Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch
MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or

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