When West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957, critics agreed that the show would influence the course of musical theater — especially Jerome Robbins’ imaginative use of choreography to deliver the emotion and momentum of the modern-day retelling doomed lovers, inspired by Romeo and Juliet. With Leonard Bernstein’s Jazz-infused score and Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway outing as a lyricist (he was just 26 at the time), the show was an instant hit. It went on to become an Academy Award-winning movie in 1961, and those elements were key to its success. Anyone who attempts to stage the show today — six decades later — is required to hew close to the original.
Despite its cramped stage, The Carnegie’s staging of the show has many elements that pay homage to the original. The 14-musician orchestra, conducted by William White, sounds great, especially Kyle Lamb’s rhythmic contributions on percussion that are so much the DNA of Bernstein’s score. Also dynamically present is energetic dancing from start to finish: Choreographer Jay Goodlett has the large cast constantly in motion and executing Robbins’ athletic and iconic moves. Virtually all of the Carnegie’s cast have to be serious dancers as well as singers, and they are — as individuals (especially Brian Bailey as Riff) and in ensemble numbers of “Cool” and “America.”
The show requires great voices, too, and director Brian Robertson has assembled an array of highly trained singers. As Maria and Tony, Abigail Paschke and Marcus Shields are powerful, but too often their operatically trained voices make their teenaged-lover characters less than believable. Not so with Layan Elwazani as the fiery Anita and Darnell Benjamin as Maria’s brother, the ill-fated gang leader Bernardo: Their strong performances combine voice and movement in a convincing and engaging manner.
The full cast’s rendition of “Tonight” finishing the first act is thrilling. Robertson made a curious choice to conclude the show, which usually ends with a modestly hopeful rapprochement between the warring gangs when they realize the carnage resulting from their senseless rumble, the tragic deaths of three vibrant young men. Robertson, instead, has chosen to close the second act with Maria mourning over Tony’s body as the music swells. It’s operatic in feeling, to be sure, but it misses providing the optimistic message usually conveyed.
WEST SIDE STORY, presented by The Carnegie in Covington, continues through Jan. 18.