When "West Side Story" opened on Broadway in 1957, the huge stage of the Winter Garden Theatre was electric with Jerome Robbins' jagged and naturalistic choreography. There was, of course, the equally inventive score by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but the show was the dancing, the vibrant, syncopated byplay between the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.
Sha Newman, aided by consultant Barry Ramsey, has re-created Robbins' original choreography in her staging for the Fullerton Civic Light Opera. The show, at the Plummer Auditorium through Nov. 5, isn't harmed by the smaller stage: Four decades later, this is still a pretty exciting piece of theater, especially interesting in its naivete, considering the differences between street gangs then and now.
Newman has brought her style to the tight, mercurial form of this production, which is vibrant, breathing with authentic energy, as lyrical and hard-edged as can be. Lee Kreter's musical direction helps immensely with an on-the-nose Broadway sound and a verve that keeps the ballads lively and the dance sections forceful and athletic.
Ed Gallagher's scenic design is inventive and right; Ambra Wakefield's costumes are period true (except for baggy jeans for some of the boys in a period when Levi's 501s were the only thing available).
Vocally, the company is smashing throughout. The crystal clear soprano of Frances Garcia as Maria is especially noteworthy. And the dancing, while not always as synchronized as it could be, is exceptional, most notably the work of Michael Guarnera as Riff, Enrique Acevedo as Bernardo, Dirk Mitchell as Action and Michael McClure as A-Rab. Matthew Martinez, as Baby John, throws in some character-indicative eccentric dancing as a bonus.
Ryan Orr's Tony is a fine match for Garcia's Maria. Their romantic moments together are believable and sincere. Cyndee Z is a peppery Anita and Luis Perez a powerful Chino. In period stereotypes, Jim Trebilcox, Rick Clave and John Zurlo are good as the frustrated drugstore proprietor Doc, the white-biased police Lt. Schrank and the Neanderthal Officer Krupke. Suzanne Pelle gets all of her laughs as Anybody's.
"West Side Story" is not the easiest musical to pull off. But from beginning to end, this production quivers with excitement. All of the performances shine, and its homage to the show's creators is affectionate and insightful.
* "West Side Story," Plummer Auditorium, Chapman and Lemon streets, Fullerton. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. with an additional performance at 7 p.m. Oct. 29 only. Ends Nov. 5. $13-$27. (714) 879-1732. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Michael Guarnera: Riff
Ryan Orr: Tony
Dirk Mitchell: Action
Michael McClure: A-Rab
Matthew Martinez: Baby John
Suzanne Pelle: Anybody's
Enrique Acevedo: Bernardo
Frances Garcia: Maria
Cyndee Z: Anita
Luis Perez: Chino
A Fullerton Civic Light Opera production of a musical by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, produced by Griff Duncan, directed by Sha Newman. Jerome Robbins' original choreography reproduced by Sha Newman and Barry Ramsey. Stage fighting: Barry Ramsey. Assistant choreographer: Michael Guarnera. Musical direction: Lee Kreter. Costume coordination: Ambra Wakefield. Lighting design: Donna Ruzika. Scenic design: Ed Gallagher. Stage manager: Donna R. Parsons.