Spoiler alert: West Side Story is a tragedy. No matter how many times you see it, no matter how badly you want it to end differently, everyone is really pretty terrible. Time and again there are opportunities to prevent the tragedies, and time and again they’re blown because of pride, violence and stubbornness.
The show does its best to have a hopeful message, with the beautiful, haunting “Somewhere,” sung primarily in a dreamlike sequence. “There’s a place for us/A time and place for us,” Maria and Tony, the star-crossed lovers sing. But then you step back and look at the story, and you wonder if there truly is.
West Side Story is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, subbing in mid-century New York for Italy. Romeo and Juliet is itself an adaptation of an ancient Roman myth. Will there ever truly be a time and place free from meaningless hatred, where arbitrary lines are drawn based on skin color or nationality?
Philosophical musings aside, West Side Story is a hell of a musical. There are musicals that do individual things better–some have stronger scores (though not many); some better lyrics; others tighter books; still others more impressive choreography. But West Side Story is unique in that it achieves all of those things at an extremely high level, making it an extremely strong contender for best musical of all time. Even though the musical is almost 60 years old, it still feels vital and fresh. The slippery saxophones and plinking of the score, the sharp and crisp choreography, that message that unfortunately we still need, it’s still the epitome of cool.
The company playing in Indianapolis is very young. Many of them listed this as their first touring show. Some of that greenness does shine through–some of the sharp, snappy dialogue in “America” is lost; a few dance moves aren’t quite as clean as they could be. But Maria (Mary Joanna Grisso) has the bell-like voice and childlike innocence necessary to pull off songs like “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart.” Her older, wiser friend Anita (Michelle Alves) shines at dramatic acting, as do the leaders of the rival gangs. It’s a company with a lot of heart, and makes a great introduction to one of Broadway’s classic shows.
Maybe one day there will be a time and place for people like Tony and Maria and for all of us. But even if that day comes, West Side Story will continue to be beautiful, chilling, haunting theater. This is a show everyone should see at least once. Every time you take it in, you see more of the tragedy and humanity, beauty and folly that defines us all.
That’s a wrap on the 2012-2013 season. It’s been ludicrous tons of fun being your Twitter Critic, and thanks to Broadway Across America Indianapolis for providing my tickets all season. Next year’s lineup is exciting because every single show is playing in Indianapolis for the first time. Enjoy your summer, check out West Side Story, and I’ll see you in the fall.
West Side Story is playing at Clowes Memorial Hall on the Butler University Campus from June 4-9. Click here to purchase tickets.