Lessons in Hostility and Peace Onstage in the Broadway Classic “West Side Story”

Tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night,” that is if you are lucky enough to have tickets to see Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Broadway masterpiece “West Side Story.”

A former Upper West-sider myself, the “meet cute” between the co-stars of this production was very relatable and modern. The emotional connection between dashing Tony (Mark Koeck) and beautiful Maria (Jenna Burns) was riveting. The twosome shared wide-eyed innocence, a belief in the power of love, and not a trace of the prejudice that shaped the lives of nearly everyone in their midst.

Koeck’s voice was graceful and solid, and he brought the house down with “Tonight” and “Maria.” Despite the fact that I was mouthing all the words, his careful and thoughtful renditions of these classic songs made it seem as though I was just experiencing them for the first time.

Fifty years ago when “West Side Story” was written before Lincoln Center was built and other urban renewal projects were funded, the area was plagued by gang warfare and criminal activity. The backdrop of the play is ethnic warfare between the newer immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Sharks, and the European immigrants, the Jets, whose rivalry over neighborhood turf thinly veils significant racial prejudice.

Although the early dance/fighting numbers, choreographed by Joey McKneely (also the director) were magnificent in their execution, the fighting lacked a palpable tension. Perhaps because both Riff (Amos Wolff) and Bernardo (Andres Acosta), the leaders of their respective gangs, were such strong dancers, the focus was more on the artistry, and I did not feel convinced that there was much at stake between the groups.  

During opening night, there were three major attacks in Paris, so that might have made a disagreement over turf seem all the more senseless. The three major characters, Tony, Maria, and Anita (Mary Antonini) did the emotional heavy lifting of the production. Antoni was a firecracker in her song and dance numbers and also capable of portraying true heartbreak and loss in some of the most moving scenes of the production.

The three leads brought so much passion and heart to their roles that it was particularly hard to watch the tragic conclusion. I wanted them to go on singing and dancing to their hearts content and for the inevitable war to end and be replaced by the peace Maria so desperately wanted.

At a time when we are watching political leaders call for the exclusion of immigrants and refugees, it is particularly painful to watch such a heartbreaking production about unrest among ethnic communities. However, it is also important that the arts help us talk about difficult subjects. The classic lyrics: “There’s a place for us, 
Somewhere a place for us. Peace and quiet and open air. Wait for us. Somewhere
,” were particularly resonant in our current climate.

If we can all find a place of commonality and a shared appreciation for what is beautiful – a desire to dance and sing and a chance for true love, maybe we can find peace. “Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you thereSomehow, some day, somewhere.”

Even though I had a few issues with the production, one should never miss a chance to see the tremendous performances by Knoeck, Burns, and Antonini and the stunning choreography by McKneely. This weekend, you have the chance to take the whole family for roughly the price of one ticket, and it is a wonderful chance to see a classic show beautifully staged right in our hometown.

Family Day at “West Side Story” 
Saturday, December 5 at 2pm; pre-show activities at 1pm
Asolo Repertory Theatre

Tickets are $60 for a family of four; two tickets must be for patrons under the age of 18. Additional tickets for children under age 18 are available for $12.

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