‘West Side Story’ at Berkeley Playhouse is worthy iteration of musical theater classic

A man and woman hold each other in their arms and stare into each others' eyes under purple light.
Ben Kratz Studio/Courtesy

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Any theater geek worth their salt knows “West Side Story.” Originally envisioned by Jerome Robbins and featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, the musical is a revolutionary and still-relevant exploration of the divisions that plague American society. Plus, it’s got a killer dance sequence centered on vaguely threatening synchronized snapping and characters who utter phrases such as, “Let’s get the chicks and kick it.”

The cultural reverence bestowed upon “West Side Story” is so massive. So when a theater company mounts its own version of it, the process can often mutate into a paralyzing combination of the joy of getting the chance to put a spin on such a beloved classic and the terror of getting it wrong.

But any terror that may have been felt by Berkeley Playhouse regarding its production of “West Side Story” would be needless. Its take on this Broadway mainstay is faithful to the vision of the original, boasting a capable cast, an excellent set and sharp choreography.

“West Side Story” is a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” taking place in 1950s New York. Rival gangs the Jets (predominantly white) and the Sharks (composed of Puerto Rican immigrants) are locked in heated and often violent conflict. Into this hostile environment stumble star-crossed lovers Tony (Will Skrip), a former Jets member, and Maria (Ana Paula Malagón), whose brother Bernardo (David Bohnet) is the leader of the Sharks. The couple pursues love despite differing backgrounds, facing tragic obstacles throughout their short affair.

As is to be expected with a timeless love story, the chemistry between the two leads is paramount to the production’s success — and Malagón and Skrip have it in spades. Well-trodden scenes such as Tony and Maria’s dreamlike first meeting at a dance maintain their poignancy, as every line of dialogue shared between the two is ingrained with a dizzying sense of enchantment. Their seminal duet, “Tonight,” is no exception. Skrip’s controlled vibrato and Malagón’s lilting soprano complement each other perfectly — if their acting didn’t already sell the whole “love-at-first-sight” thing, their vocal compatibility seals the deal.

In a musical full of songs written to be standouts, this iteration of “West Side Story” nevertheless boasts a few that seem a cut above the others. Riff (Danila Burshteyn) does a great job leading the pack with macho jazz anthem “Cool,” while Vida Mae Fernandez is a joy to watch as the strong-willed Anita in “America.” And the most stunning number has no lyrics at all — the “rumble” that closes out Act 1 sees the Jets and the Sharks execute first-class fight choreography with commendable precision.

Encounters such as these are set against a picturesque New York backdrop, skillfully recreated on the Berkeley Playhouse stage. Reversible facades of buildings indicate various locations; characters parade across a balcony and through a window as a nimbly lit skyline in the background shifts color palettes to denote the time of day. The show’s costuming additionally contributes to the visual segmentation of this world — the Jets appear in blue, the Sharks in blacks and reds, and the innocent Tony and Maria, caught in the middle of all of it, are fittingly clothed in white.

“West Side Story” is continuously preoccupied with such a theme of innocence and how the ways in which a violent, divisive world fails it. It’s a message that still hits home, and that’s largely why Tony and Maria’s tragic story continues to be performed today, more than 60 years after the musical first premiered. The Berkeley Playhouse production of “West Side Story” furthers this tradition, honoring these Romeo and Juliet alternates with the veneration that they deserve.

“West Side Story” will be showing at Berkeley Playhouse through March 17.

Grace Orriss covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].