Chicago Theater Review: WEST SIDE STORY (Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace)

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by Lawrence Bommer on January 23, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Sadly, hate conquers all in West Side Story, but the love we see and feel can hold its own. Though over a half-century old, the Bernstein/Laurents/Sondheim/Robbins tour-de-force is, like its Shakespearean source, young as first love. You don’t revive it, you detonate it, as happens repeatedly in Drury Lane’s dynamic production, which thankfully has already been extended (it’s the fastest-selling production in the company’s 30 year history).

(L to R) John Marshall Jr., Lucas Fedele, Cameron Edris, Adrian Aguilar, Carl Draper, Ryan Fitzgerald

Bernstein packed coiled energy into every song, alternating the testosterone territoriality of these gangs of New York with “Tonight” and “Somewhere,” ballads that are radiant with other-worldly beauty. The musical walks the edge between stinking streets that threaten instant death and the unearthly idealism of Tony and Maria, who enjoy two days of eternity before hate triumphs over love. The extremes here are too different not to destroy each other.

(L to R) Glenn M. Snellgrose II, Isaiah Alatorre, Tommy Rivera-Vega, Lucas Segovia, Todd Rhoades, Anthony Avino, Chip Payos

Strangely enough, West Side Story feels more dated than Romeo and Juliet, its 500-year-old inspiration. Quaint juvenile delinquents compared to today’s drive-by gangster-wannabes, the Jets and Sharks request each other’s permission to use switchblades at their rumble: Their worst epithet is “buggin” or “Krup you!” Compared to Shakespeare’s dedicated tragedy, the musical is also less violent, claiming only three lives to the Bard’s five (although, in the second act, one character barely escapes being raped).

(L to R) Adrian Aguilar and Rhett Guter (standing), Deanna Ott and Cameron Edris (at door), John Marshall Jr. (sitting), Roger Mueller (standing)

More trenchantly, both works proclaim the power of love to consume and to cure. Powerfully enacted, they unleash a ton of energy, especially given the necessity for young casts. A riveting revival by the always excellent Rachel Rockwell, this sizzling staging plays the heartbreak as if Romeo and Juliet never happened. Everything in this production makes a great musical a new one. Happily, unlike the most recent national tour, Rockwell eliminates librettist Laurents’ decision to use copious Spanish in the scenes and songs by the Sharks and their supporters. (That bi-lingual touch may have reinforced the differences between the clashing communities on stage, but inevitably between Blancos and Latinos in the audience as well; confusing and distracting, it was more trouble than it was worth.)

(Back turned) Rhett Guter, (Middle) Lucas Segovia, (Left side) Jim DeSelm with cast

Designer Scott Davis focuses the action under a huge overpass, with descending ironwork, where the rumbles will erupt (conveyed in a vintage photo projection). Equally essential are the all-important fire-escape balcony and the sprawling school gym where the hormonal lovers meet, as well as vacant lots where the gangs clamber over chain-link fences to rampage at will.

Rhett Guter and the cast

Faithful to the sexy strutting of Jerome Robbins’ original dances but emphasizing the athleticism over the romanticism of these violent mash-ups, associate director Rhett Guter’s choreography reprises the hot jazz in “Cool,” sets fire to the menacing “Mambo” in the gym, and turns the haunting “Somewhere” dream ballet into a redemptive promenade for peace.

(L to R) Carl Draper, Ryan Fitzgerald, Will Skrip, Rhett Guter, Cameron Edris, Adrian Aguilar, Lucas Fedele

What a range for these inexhaustible dynamos! The hot, young troupe tears into the kick-ass gang-banging of the anthemic “Jets Song,” then eases into the lovers’ heartbreaking balletic fantasy of a world without hate. The sure-fire storytelling behind every movement in “America” and especially “Gee, Officer Krupke” are matched by the almost scary youthfulness that bursts through their seams. The songs, well coached by Roberta Duchak, feel as inevitable as the story.

(L to R) Lillian Castillo, Christina Nieves, Lauren Villegas

Pole-axed by passion, both Jim DeSelm and Christina Nieves redefine infatuation in a hundred different ways. Tall and mercurial, DeSelm, his tenor a bit thin but his looks very good, brings ardent impetuosity to his gangbanger-next-door, playing Tony as if, yes, “Something’s Coming” but he can’t tell what: Playing the moment is the only way to do Tony. A vision in white, Nieves’s Maria is a Madonna who—having to grow up fast—prefers to be un-immaculate; Nieves reconfirms true-believing Maria’s awesome hopefulness (“I Feel Pretty”), bringing a sweet soprano to this vulnerable survivor.

(L to R) Christina Nieves and Jim DeSelm

Surrounding the lovers with the right—or wrong—hate, Guter’s rough-and-ready Riff is a spunky contrast to Lucas Segovia’s Bernardo and his self-defeating machismo and complete lack of anger management. Michelle Aravena’s kinetic Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, struggles to rise above that hate; Aravena, who appeared in the touring production, nobly captures the strong woman’s ambivalence. (The character of Anita is a wonderful invention: Shakespeare gave Juliet no confidante but the bibulous Nurse; here it helps that Anita, coaxed by Maria, discovers that “When love comes along / There is no right or wrong / Your love is your life.”) The always reliable Roger Mueller turns anguished Doc into the one adult who’s truly grown-up.

(L to R) Christina Nieves and Michelle Aravena

Finally, more kudos to the powerhouse behind this perpetual motion: Pile-driving this too-hot-to-handle score, the ensemble honors the musical’s many moods, exploding into hormonal turf dances, an equally combative dance competition, the superbly escalating first-act finale, and an elegiac fantasy of the happy ending that this world will not permit.

photos by Brett Beiner

West Side Story
Drury Lane Theatre
100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace
Wed at 1:30; Thurs at 1:30 & 8;
Fri at 8; Sat at 5 & 8; Sun at 2 & 6
ends on March 29, 2015
for tickets, call 630.530.0111 or visit

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit

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