It is the finger snap still heard in productions around the world.
And when a young street tough clicks those digits again at the 5th Avenue Theatre, telegraphing fellow members of the Jets gang to walk tall in the opening moments of “West Side Story,” the snap is an invitation to a musical that remains stubbornly vibrant, exhilarating and meaningful.
Bill Berry’s current 5th Avenue staging of “West Side Story,” based on his hit 2007 version for the company, does not update or rethink the saga of young ardor, bigotry and street warfare in 1950s Manhattan. We can leave that to Steven Spielberg, who is making a film of the show with a new script by “Angels in America” author Tony Kushner, and to the prolific Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who will helm a more experimental version on Broadway next season.
What 5th Avenue artistic director Berry does, with flair and propulsion, is honor the original and bring it to life with more Latinx actors in the mix and sprinklings of Spanish in the dialogue.
The 5th Avenue maxes out the stage population with an able 44-member cast. They are accompanied by a 25-piece pit orchestra that fully exploits the dazzling, difficult Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim score. And Berry fills the stage with original director Jerome Robbins’ dances to fuel a plot that, in Arthur Laurents’ mock-slangy libretto, cleverly parallels Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
The musical’s instantly smitten (and taboo) lovers, the Puerto Rican newbie Maria (Rebbekah Vega-Romero) and the Polish American recovering gangbanger Tony (William Branner), are presumably the central characters here. They are an attractive couple and perform with conviction, though so eagerly that they don’t ignite all the chemistry or capture the full emotional arc of the romance.
But it’s a big plus that both have the pipes to hit the soaring heights of classic, demanding songs like the giddy fire-escape duet “Tonight,” Tony’s love-drunk solo “Maria” and Maria’s cri de coeur, “I Have a Love.” Branner is an especially fine singer, with a full-bodied, free-ranging voice that hits the peaks and valleys of Tony’s “Something’s Coming.” And the couple’s somber vow, “One Hand, One Heart” (which niftily steals from Shakespeare) is quietly, poignantly prescient.
But this is truly an ensemble show and that’s where it shines brightest here. The Jets and Sharks are tight-knit units, each of whose members live, party and go to battle together. As “The Jet Song” puts it, when you’re a Jet (or a Shark) you’re never alone, never disconnected. You’re home with your own and when your turf is threatened, you “snap” into action.
The Jets captain, Riff (hearty Dan Lusardi), and the Sharks sleek honcho Bernardo (Alexander Gil Cruz) lead their teams into the explosive dance numbers — faithful re-creations of Robbins’ remarkable choreography by Bob Richard, impressively executed with members of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater.
The pre-rumble stress releaser “Cool” is a marvel of gymnastic moves and frayed nerves. The rooftop “America” number, with its biting Sondheim lyrics about the promise and peril of migrating here, showcases the skirt-swishing panache of Danielle Marie Gonzalez as Anita, Bernardo’s showstopper main squeeze.
“The Dance at the Gym,” punched up with Latin rhythms and modern jazz, is a glorious dance-off. And the “Somewhere” ballet, which didn’t make it into the legendary 1961 movie of “West Side Story,” is a bonus. It imagines (with nods to esteemed choreographer Agnes de Mille and the music of Aaron Copland) a dream-paradise where peace and harmony abide — marred by a flashback to the knife fight that uselessly ends young lives.
Every move of that brawl, by the way, is tightly choreographed. And by stylizing the combat, Robbins has made it especially suspenseful and tragic.
Like Berry’s previous take on “West Side Story,” the set is an efficient, versatile and grimly abstract arrangement of metal bridges, platforms and ladders by Martin Christoffel. And with the addition of Mary Louise Geiger’s superb new lighting scheme, and some overlapping dance moves, the production keeps up the momentum from scene to scene.
Much like the teenagers of the Montague and Capulet clans in the ancient Verona that Shakespeare imagined, the Jets and Sharks gangs at first mostly posture at being tough guys on disputed turf.
But adults in their sphere, the wary drugstore owner Doc (Sean G. Griffin) and burned-out, bigoted cop Lt. Schrank (Jim Gall), repeatedly warn about where their skirmishes will lead. The adults are right: The violence accelerates with homicide, attempted rape and impulsive revenge. And when a gun finally appears, it’s a shivery reminder of how gang grudges are often “settled” by shootings today. (The show’s original staging ended on a hopeful note. Not so here.)
Though at times it feels a bit dated, “West Side Story” was an attempt by its creators to radicalize the American musical with a dose of social reality and a story conveyed as much in movement and music as dialogue. Many fine musicals later, the show is highly influential but no longer radical. But as the captivating 5th Avenue Theatre mounting reminds us, it is still in a class by itself.
“West Side Story,” music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents, based on a conception of Jerome Robbins. Through June 23; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; tickets start at $41 (some $25 rush seats available on day of performance); 206-625-1900; 5thavenue.org