Paramount's triumphant 'West Side Story' a tragic, timely tale

Paramount Theatre's "West Side Story" is unlike any other.

Unflinching in its depiction of the bigotry and violence that consume so many American neighborhoods and bittersweet in its portrayal of young love, director Jim Corti's boldly re-imagined production may be the most authentic of its kind.

If this masterwork by composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents is a love story for all time, Corti's is a revival of our time. Here gang members emerge from clashes battered, with bloodied noses, cut faces and blackened eyes. Or they don't emerge at all, and their deaths remain unsolved.

Paramount's production offers a modern, bruising take on the beloved musical. The "Romeo and Juliet" tale comes to life with an impassioned cast and an exceptional 19-piece orchestra under music director Tom Vendafreddo that does justice to the dazzling score, one of the finest composed for the stage.

At the core of "West Side Story" is the relationship between Tony (Will Skrip), the son of Polish immigrants, and Maria (Zoe Nadal), newly arrived from Puerto Rico. Their budding romance, which begins in a gymnasium during a frenetic mambo, is threatened by the rivalry between the Jets, Tony's former gang, and the Sharks, which Maria's brother Bernardo (Alexander Aguilar) leads. But this tale, set in 1950s Manhattan, is more than a love story. Unfolding against a backdrop of gang violence, police brutality and anti-immigration sentiment, the musical is a cautionary tale of intolerance breeding hostility. That hostility erupts in savagery, which authorities cannot stem and impoverished residents of gang-infested neighborhoods cannot escape. It's as familiar as today's headlines, which inform Corti's shrewd staging.

Throughout, the musical speaks to our persistent yearning for a place to belong. Aching for but never finding that place fosters frustration and rage, both reflected in William Carlos Angulo's superb choreography. More pugilistic than original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins' iconic balletic-athletic hybrid, Williams' hard-hitting, internalized choreography, with its stylized hand gestures, shows characters at war with themselves as well as their rivals.

The action plays out against Kevin Depinet's intriguing, abstract-industrial set design. Featuring an enormous piece of steel that doubles as a tenement fire escape and highway overpass, the set is dominated by diagonals and chain-link fencing. Jesse Klug's moody, striated lighting adds a sense of foreboding. Theresa Ham's costumes and Kati Cordts' wigs - feminine sundresses and loose curls for the Sharks' girls; capri pants, short shorts and elaborate updos for the Jets' girls - further illustrate the gulf between these two groups.

And the performances are as impeccable as the design.

Skrip - whose ardent, gorgeously sung "Maria" marks a high point - exposes Tony's internal conflict as well as his transformation. Tony claims he's left thug life behind, but violent instincts remain. They explode when best friend and Jets leader Riff (Jeff Smith) jokes about Tony's mother. Maria (the exquisite Nadal, who possesses quiet strength) changes him, inspiring tenderness that in his world is a liability.

Skrip and Nadal are well-matched and their duets - the soaring "Tonight" and the aching "Somewhere" - are lovely. "Somewhere" is particularly moving, as is the operatic "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love."

Triple-threat Mary Antonini gives a smart, spirited performance as the assertive, happily assimilated Anita, whose dignity remains after her faith is shattered.

Also deserving mention are Joe Dempsey's vicious, corrupt detective Shrank, Aubrey Adams' tough-talking Anybodys and Ryan McBride's explosive Action, a sociopath in the making.

In a production filled with revelations, the number with perhaps the greatest impact is "Gee, Officer Krupke." In Corti and Angulo's hands, this patter tune parody emerges as a searing indictment of a broken criminal justice and social service system. The ferocious performances by McBride, James Lee, Jonny Stein, Samuel Owen Gardner, Liam Quealy and Aaron Patrick Craven stopped the show. Deservedly.

It's one more revelation in Paramount's stellar revival, which reminds us how far away Tony and Maria's "Somewhere" is.

Tony (Will Skrip) and Maria (Zoe Nadal) plan for a life together in “Somewhere” in director Jim Corti's revival of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents masterwork “West Side Story” at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
The balcony scene unfolds on Kevin Depinet's abstract, industrially urban set in Paramount Theatre's production of “West Side Story,” starring Zoe Nadal as Maria and Will Skrip as Tony. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Choreographer William Carlos Angulo re-imagined Jerome Robbins's iconic choreography in Paramount Theatre's bold revival of “West Side Story,” running through April 24. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Bernardo (Alexander Aguilar, in black) and Riff (Jeff Smith), right, square off in Paramount Theatre's “West Side Story,” directed by Jim Corti. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Kevin Depinet designed the set and William Carlos Angulo created the choreography for Paramount Theatre's revival of “West Side Story,” which runs through April 24 in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
While violence and prevalence prevail, there's no happy ending for Maria (Zoe Nadal) and Tony (Will Skrip) in “West Side Story,” running through April 24 at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

“West Side Story”

★ ★ ★ ★

Location: 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666 or

Showtimes: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday; through April 24

Tickets: $41-$56

Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission

Parking: $3 in the municipal parking garage at Stolp Avenue and Downer Place, limited street parking

Rating: Violence, mature themes, for teens and older

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