Gang-intensive take fuels Lamb’s’ very good ‘West Side Story’

Riff (Jesse Abeel,  center) is a dyed-in-the-wool Jet in Lamb's Players Theatre's 'West Side Story.' Photos by Ken Jacques

Riff (Jesse Abeel, center) is a dyed-in-the-wool Jet in Lamb’s Players Theatre’s ‘West Side Story.’ Photos by Ken Jacques

It’s true Stephen Sondheim has been tearing up Broadway musical theater for years – but did you know he wrote the lyrics to the songs from West Side Story? All the way back in 1957?? Geez – composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins have been gone for close to a quarter century, which is maybe why it’s so hard to associate Sondheim, now 85, with such a Golden Age classic. When he penned the libretto, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, and the Beatles wouldn’t take over the universe for another five or six years.

Did you also know he thinks the words are “downright embarrassing”? Did you also know he’s wrong about that? Maybe a little ingratiating in spots – but “embarrassing”?

Tell that to Deborah Gilmour Smyth, director of Lamb’s Players Theatre’s current West Side. The lyrics, she might say, are an ideal counterpoint to the spoken word, unflagging in their focus even as the famed Sharks and Jets voice dissension within their own ranks. Smyth’s a decidedly seasoned veteran in coaxing the portrayals that follow – and with this production, it shows, often quite assuredly.

Y’all know the story, especially if you’ve seen Romeo and Juliet, on which it’s based: Tony and Maria, two crazy kids from opposite sides of the fence, fall in love, and tragedy follows amid an unofficial civil war. New York’s Upper West Side of the late 1950s replaces Shakespeare’s roily Verona, Italy here, just as his dog-eared Montague and highborn Capulet families morph into the Puerto Rican immigrant Shark and white-bread Jet street gangs – but the outcome’s roughly the same. (One death scene, in fact, precisely parallels Shakespeare’s understory: Tony kills Maria’s brother Bernardo in a fit of rage, just as Romeo slays Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in the exact same context.)

If Kermidas isn’t double-jointed, then nobody is.

The dance at which Tony and Maria first meet; the pair’s balcony scene; Maria’s eleventh-hour appearance following her reported death: The parallels are legion, especially the key trait that keeps these characters so fresh – as often as not, they swear allegiance to themselves before anyone else. Jet leader Riff (Jesse Abeel) has to lay down the law as the rest itch for a fight with the Sharks (“Cool”); Maria’s confidant Anita (Michelle Alves) chides her to “stick to your own kind” (“A Boy Like That”). Inside the gangs and out, life is apparently business as usual, and Smyth portrays this accordingly.

By the same token, Tony (Kevin Hafso-Koppman) and Maria (Olivia Hernandez) are gallantly swimming upstream as they declare their love against all odds. I’m not sure that Hafso-Koppman’s unobtrusive vocals always work against Hernandez’s powerhouse soprano; in any event, the difference is an honest one, and each take serves the individual character. John Rosen’s Doc, a dead ringer for Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence, brings the right dejection to the part. And let’s totally step back for Daniel Kermidas, whose loony-tunes Action is the poster child for this show’s “Gee, Officer Krupke.” If Kermidas isn’t double-jointed, then nobody is.

Maria (Olivia Hernandez, left) and Tony (Kevin Hafso-Koppman) face a daumting uphill climb.

Maria (Olivia Hernandez, left) and Tony (Kevin Hafso-Koppman) face a daumting uphill climb.

Choreographer Colleen Kollar Smith nicely engineers a certain seamlessness in the ensemble numbers (“Dance at the Gym,” for example) – the gangs share a youthful foreboding about New York street life, and Smith has captured it shrewdly and well. Jordan Miller’s stage combat scenes are wholly believable, and music director Patrick Marion certainly has a handle on the score (although the eight-piece band’s abovestage presence seems to overemphasize the concept of musical commentary).

Costumer Jeanne Reith, as always, is God’s gift. The rest of the tech is fine, with Nathan Peirson’s lights helping define Mick Buckley’s dank set.

This show features 22 actors, a relatively large cast for Lamb’s’ smallish performance space. But there’s something about playing at floor level that fuels the immediacy of the message (witness the company’s positively transcendent Les Miserables from last year). Under these conditions, and amid Smyth’s expertise, this West Side works just fine, thanks. It draws from arguably the world’s greatest playwright, and like arguably the world’s greatest playwright, it isn’t going away anytime soon. Very, very good.

This review is based on the matinee performance of June 20. West Side Story runs through Aug. 2 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. $24-$74., 619-437-6000.

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