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The Guthrie's new 'West Side Story' has more depth, fewer fingersnaps

T Charles Erickson

T Charles Erickson

West Side Story without fingersnaps? The concept seems almost unthinkable—like Hair without nudity. Director Joseph Haj and choreographer Maija García have done it, though: extracted the classic musical from the mid-century trappings of its justly lauded but now overfamiliar Jerome Robbins production. The result is a revelation.

While the Guthrie Theater’s current West Side Story is still set in Manhattan circa 1957, Haj doesn’t treat it like a period piece. The show unfolds on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, which is apt for a production that reaches out to draw connections with our 21st-century world. In the process, Haj finds rich new depths in this towering masterwork.

In a production that elevates story and character over stage spectacle, there is one grand gesture, and it’s apparent as soon as you step into the theater. The head and torch of a massive inverted Statue of Liberty extend down from the flyspace, looming over Mark Hartman’s orchestra like a missile about to strike. The statue will disappear before long, returning for a devastating conclusion in which Lady Liberty’s underlit face evokes America’s cruelly broken promises.

In the meantime, Christopher Acebo’s scenic design hangs back to more subtly accentuate the intense drama that plays out once Hartman raises his baton over Leonard Bernstein’s gorgeously jagged score. The hungry and committed cast, including reliable Guthrie regulars as well as a number of exceptional newcomers, bring a combustible yet humane energy to the escalating rivalry between two street gangs.

Mia Pinero projects a confident intelligence as Maria, who falls for Marc Koeck’s Tony. Koeck has a soft-edged, heroic mien, and his rapport with Pinero is completely endearing.

In Jen Caprio’s costumes the rest of the Jets and the Sharks are also as visually distinctive as action figures, which speaks to the reimagined production’s strength: It’s still highly stylized, but differently, thrillingly so. García’s movement exults in the jazzy score, and sends bodies careening with freshly visceral abandon. The uniformly superb singing is alive to the characters’ conflicted emotions, as well as a celebration of the unique alchemy between Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

Haj has cast the Sharks as a Latinx gang, the Jets as “an anthology of what it means to be ‘American,’” per playwright Arthur Laurents’ description.

Of the shows Haj has personally helmed since coming to lead the Guthrie, some of which have been very good, none have evinced such sweeping vision and sublime execution. Bradley King’s transcendent lighting illuminates a world of joyful dance, dark comedy, and profound tragedy: an experience of truly rare power.

West Side Story
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Through August 26; 612-377-2224